Learn to Fly Your Multirotor
(or Die Trying)
If you’re completely new to flying RC aircraft and are looking to get started, then you have a bit of homework to do before you even buy or touch a multirotor aircraft. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read my article on how quadcopters fly and how the controls work.
I’m going to assume that you’ve read and understood both those pieces in this article, so seriously, read them first.
In The Beginning…
The first thing you have to understand is that learning to fly a quadcopter or other multirotor RC craft can be very frustrating. In a sense you have to rewire your brain to intuitively understand flight, and only repeated practice and failure can help you there.
This is why I and just about anyone else who flies RC craft recommend that you start off with a cheap sub-$50 micro- or nano-drone. That way you can learn the basics safely indoors away from wind and weather, and if you do total the quadcopter it won’t hit you very hard in the pocket. For the most part the basic flight controls are the same; whether you are flying a $30 nano or a $3000 carbon fibre camera drone, it’s all basically the same when it comes to the principles.
Partnership or Sinking Ship?
Quadcopters are not aerodynamically stable, so they need an onboard computer known as a “flight controller” in order to fly. The flight controller takes commands from your radio transmitter and tries to obey them while, for example, keeping the craft level and in the air.
This is important to understand, since when you fly your quadcopter it isn’t all you. You are working with the flight controller to do the piloting. In higher-end multirotor craft the onboard computer may do even more, such as taking off, landing, and flying to a specific height and position so that you can take photos. In fact, these high-end drones don’t actually need you to do their jobs. Just tell them where to go and they’ll work out the details.
Still, computers fail and you may at some point need to manually control even these expensive drones.
The First Goal
You should find a safe space to start learning quadcopter controls. If you’ve followed the advice to get a small indoor quad, then start in a room with an open, carpeted space, although you don’t want to use the kind of carpet that has long strands which can gum up and burn out your motors. Basically we want a soft, but stable surface that will take the inevitable number of hard landings you’ll have in the beginning. We don’t want to total the quad too quickly, after all.
The first thing you want to do is get comfortable with the throttle. You need to do this with every new copter you fly; this just happens to be your first one. Slowly push the throttle up until the rotors start spinning, but not so much that the craft begins to lift off the ground.
Do this a few times until you are happy with how the throttle feels. Once you have done this, push the throttle a little bit more until the quad becomes light on its feet. Once you are again comfortable with this you’ll want to get the copter airborne, but only just. Get it to lift a few inches off the ground and put it back down again.
The outcome of this exercise is to achieve a stable hover, so when you lift the copter into the air notice whether it is pitching, rolling or yawing without you giving any inputs to that effect. If it is yawing to the left, for example, input trim in the trim controls in the opposite direction until that tendency is canceled out. Do this for each unwanted movement and you should have a quadcopter that takes straight off, hovers, and then comes back down more or less to where it took off, without using anything other than the throttle. That is, if there isn’t wind pushing it around – even a ceiling or other type of fan can blow a nano-quad around, so make sure you have a calm environment.
Hovering in place will take a little practice. Even with a well-trimmed quadcopter you’ll need to make constant adjustments to roll, pitch, and yaw to keep the quad hovering in place. When you have other forces like wind, this is even more true. It’s important to really get the art of hovering down well, since you have to fall back into a hover if anything goes wrong. Returning to a hover should be your default instinct, not simply cutting the throttle, as many beginners do when they panic.
You want to be at least a foot to a foot-and-a-half off the ground in order to get out of something called “ground effect”, which is where the backwash from your rotors on the floor messes with your lift. You also need to compensate for this effect in the last few seconds before landing, or your quad will simply drop the last bit to the ground.
Before you move on at all, you need to become perfectly comfortable getting into a stable hover and then landing. It doesn’t matter how long this takes, it must be mastered first. Use as many battery charges as you need, there is no rush.
Once that’s done you have to get used to pitch, roll and yaw. Using your takeoff and landing spot as a reference point practice each of the axes in turn. Pitch forward, stop and then return to hover above the landing spot. Repeat this for every other movement along all three axes.
Now that you’ve got that down, it’s time to draw a square using nothing but the pitch and roll controls. If the quad begins to yaw, bring the nose back to its position facing away from you. Pitch a few feet forward. Stop. Roll to the right. Stop. Pitch back. Stop. Roll left back to your starting position. Make sure you can do this confidently both clockwise and counterclockwise before moving on.
Circle of Friends
Next, again only using pitch and roll, you need to draw a circle. This requires that you use a mix of pitch and roll. In other words, you will also be pushing the right stick diagonally.
That’s the basics of using pitch and roll, but you’ll notice that this was quite easy because you and the quad were both facing the same direction. When you use yaw to point the nose in a different direction however, you’ll probably have some difficulty translating the controls to the movement of the quad. Personally, I find it helps to keep my mind on where the nose is so that I don’t think about the quadcopter relative to myself. It’s also a good idea to practice nose-in hovers and then repeat the above exercises with the quad facing you. Then do it facing left and then right.
Wax On, Wax Off
The key is to be systematic in mastering and building the basic skills you need for safe and competent flight. This will take time if you are a complete beginner. Move at your own pace – you aren’t in a race with anyone.