After tons of reading, watching the latest videos, and finally getting your first mini quadcopter – actually getting in the air can be daunting. A well-tuned quad will fly beautifully, but it takes a lot of practice and muscle memory to actually get it to do what you want. The goal of this article is to help direct your learning path when you start flying. This is targeted for beginner to intermediate pilots looking to hone their skills before moving on to advanced flying.
We broke this into two sections – a short first section on beginning practice before you buy / fly your first ‘real’ quad, and practice tips for when you are truly ready to get into the air. We can’t stress enough the importance of getting comfortable with micro quads and simulators before moving on to the real deal. It will save you a ton of headache and cash in the long run, so we wanted to do a brief rundown and provide links to some helpful articles. Next, we will talk about how you can optimize your field time with tips and exercises to learn rapidly and get the most out of your new quad.
Before you fly your first mini quad
First step – start small (literally)
We have written many times on this site about the importance of starting small. Using something like a Hubsan to fly can teach you the basics without breaking the bank. These micro quads can take a beating, and the skills learned while flying these small suckers will absolutely transfer to their larger brethren. I am sure there are many people reading this that want to jump straight into the deep end, but we have seen so many $300+ quads broken within the first few flights because the pilot just didn’t have any prior practice. Hell, just search Youtube for “broken quadcopter first flight” for tens of thousands of results. Whether you are thinking about getting into the hobby, or just now starting to assemble your gear list, do yourself a favor and spend ~$20-$40 on a Hubsan or similar micro quad. It is a much cheaper investment than breaking, well, almost anything on your first real quad. We have created a few posts discussing the different micro quads on the market – check out this article for a list of three of our favorites!
Best of all, we have put together a guide outlining everything that you need to become a master at flying a Hubsan and progressing to a mini quad:
- Drone Training Guide Part 1: Planning and Prep
- Drone Training Guide Part 2: Choosing a Location
- Drone Training Guide Part 3: Training Exercises
Next step – upgrade to a simulator
You have mastered the basics of flying line of sight with your micro quad, but now you want to make the leap into flying FPV but don’t know where to begin. If you have already purchased your transmitter – a Taranis, Spektrum, or otherwise, you could easily pick up a simulator and get some hands on practice before hitting the field. There are a variety of options and features at a wide range of price tags (including free!). Just like practicing with a micro quad, using a simulator and getting a feel for this new perspective will make you more comfortable when flying the real deal. Best of all, you can use a simulator from the comfort of your desk at home. So if you have bad weather, only have time available at night, or any other problem that keeps you away from the field, this is a great solution. In the winter when I was working long hours and didn’t see daylight, I cut my teeth spending the free time I did have putting hours into the simulators.
One note though – I would highly recommend using the transmitter you are planning on flying with when using a sim. You want the experience to be as transferable as possible, and that is the easiest way to do so. Using the keyboard commands or an XBox controller are not going to help you nearly as much. Thus, if you are starting to plan out your purchase list, you might want to prioritize getting your transmitter first.
We have put together a big list of the current simulators on the market that you can use as a jumping off point:
Improving your skills when flying
OK, so you have spent hours practicing with a micro quad and simulators and are ready for the real deal. This section details tips for improving your flying skills when you upgrade to a mini quad. These aren’t organized in any particular order, but are rather a general list of tips to help you become a better pilot.
You aren’t flying a Hubsan anymore or using a computer program. Flying a fast moving quadcopter in the real world can have serious consequences if you aren’t careful. Don’t be the guy that loses their quad in a neighbor’s backyard or nearly collides with someone at the park. We have a bunch of safety articles you should read before hitting the field:
When you first flew your Hubsan around, you probably overcorrected a lot, right? You would take off and go straight up way too high, pitch too far and try and regain control, etc. Bumping up our speed and responsiveness when we move to a mini quad can cause these same issues to reappear. It is totally natural to flip upside down when taking off or losing control a bit when trying to pitch or yaw around a corner. Try to take it slow when starting out to avoid any bad crashes. With goggles both off and on, get familiar with the controls and responsiveness of your new quad. Let the muscle memory that you started to develop when practicing adjust to the feel of this new vehicle. Try simple exercises like taking off, elevating a few meters off the ground, and landing. Try flying in small circles around your takeoff area using a variety of speeds to get a feel for the controls. You don’t need to spend hours doing this, but by adjusting your muscle memory to a much faster (compared to a Hubsan) real world (compared to a simulator) environment, you can help prevent silly mistakes early on.
Also, don’t beat yourself up over simple mistakes. They happen all the time to everyone. I have seen countless failures at the starting line at races with highly experienced pilots. Accidents happen. Here, check out Novuh and my incredible double takeoff failure we happily posted to Reddit.
After you are comfortable with the speed and handling differences of a new quadcopter, my recommendation would be to try out the exercises we outlined previously recommended with your mini quad. These exercises will further challenge your handling and help give some structure early on when you are flying around. We designed these exercises with more than a micro quad in mind – they should be fully transferable to a mini quad. In fact, we flew a ZMR 250 mini quad in the video that we filmed showcasing these exercises. Similarly, you can up the difficulty by running these while using FPV to try something completely new.
Use the environment
This was my favorite part from moving on from simulators to flying in the real world. Now that you can fly anywhere, you can use the environment as part of your training. Have a favorite park with a ton of trees? Why not setup a simple course navigating around the tree trunks to test your agility? How about a big open field that you love flying at? Pick up some practice cones and set up a long race track to test your speed. Try and fly at a variety of locations and always look for ways that you can use the environment to practice new skills.
This is one of the key things that will take you from beginning to intermediate pilot and beyond – using what you have at different locations to constantly challenge yourself. When looking through multicopter forums, subreddits, or videos, you may hear the word ‘flow’ come up quite a bit. Basically, when you go to a field, find paths that you can take repeatedly that challenge you with each pass. Think about that “in the zone” feeling when you are playing a game like Tetris and aren’t even thinking about the next move – you are just doing it. That’s flow. Use different aspects of the environment to find that flow when you are flying to consistently challenge yourself.
Guys like Skitzo are masterful at this – check out some of his footage below. This is definitely a bit more advanced, and I may swap this out for a different video, but I think it demonstrates the concept well. Notice how the passes are similar, but he is using the environment to guide his flying during each pass and vary his moves.
At the same time, don’t let the environment use you. Remember that you are still in the early stages of learning so don’t push yourself too hard too soon. On your first flight out, you shouldn’t be dive bombing corporate office parks or flying up and through fifty-foot-tall trees. The last thing you want to do early on is cause damage to property or lose your quadcopter. Challenge yourself, but keep it safe and controlled. A good place to start would be small trees, where worst case scenario you could climb up and retrieve your quad. Similarly, (unoccupied) playgrounds are a perennial favorite in suburbia. Focus on places that can help build up your confidence and push your skillset, but are also safe to operate in.
Get comfortable with both Angle and Rate (Acro) modes
If you put in the hours with your Hubsan, you will probably be very familiar with Angle mode right from the get go. However, it is likely that you won’t have as much experience with Rate (also known as Acro) mode outside of simulators. While in Angle mode, your quad won’t ‘tip’ in any direction past a set angle. In effect, if you let go of the controls, the quadcopter will level out. With Rate mode, this stabilization is removed. If you keep pushing towards one axis, you will completely flip over and around. This is how guys like Charpu and Steele do those crazy flips and turns. Getting comfortable swapping in between modes is key for becoming a better pilot and for doing more advanced tricks with your quadcopter. After a while, you may find yourself flying in Acro mode 100% of the time in order to accomplish the fine tuned movements required for freestyle and racing.
However, we frequently see people ask questions like, “why would I move out of Angle mode, all I want to do is cruise around? I don’t need to be a Tokyo drifting racer”. OK maybe we added that last part, but it is a frequent question that pops up nonetheless. Even if you are flying slow and not doing any wild flips, Rate mode gives you the widest range of control over your quadcopter – especially with regards to the camera. For example, you will have more control over where the camera is pointed, allowing you to “investigate” scenes that are utterly impossible to see when your view is restricted to within 30 or so degrees of the horizon. You may use Angle mode as your default, but challenging yourself to increase your skillset and get more comfortable with flying styles such as Acro will make you a better pilot.
Do lots of repair work and customization
When learning, you are going to crash a lot. Every crash is an opportunity to learn something new. Not only will you learn how to fly better, but you will likely have to deal with some components issues every now and again. It can be daunting to diagnose issues with your quadcopter, but the more you get under the hood and find the cause of the problem, the faster you will get back in the air after a nasty crash. At first, try and break down problems by eliminating issues. For example, if you lose video on your quadcopter, but everything else works, you should isolate your problem to components like the VTX and camera. Similarly, if a motor doesn’t work, you don’t need to analyze the camera connections. Use process of elimination and understand the system that is problematic to isolate and identify the problem. Start with easy to identify issues first – follow wires and check if anything popped lose or snapped. Check that all your screws are accounted for and that your connections are solid. Plug your FC into Cleanflight and see if everything connects correctly. Identify what the problem is, look for issues within that area, identify the issue, fix as required.
Similarly, doing good repair work requires proper tools. Items like a multimeter can save you hundreds of dollars in gear by allowing you to test for electrical shorts before plugging anything in. Check out this article for a list of tools needed for building / repairing a quadcopter.
Try out different props
Starting out with two blade props? Don’t be afraid to order and try something different. Each type of prop can do something a little bit different, so trying a few new variations can really help hone in your flying. You can try different sizes between 5” and 6” props (assuming your frame and setup allows it) to test the gains / losses in power and responsiveness. Maybe try a bullnose design or tri-blade prop as well. Props are an easy component to swap out to see how gear changes can affect performance.
Beyond exploring bullnose props and tri-blades, also be sure to at least try out a few props from all the big manufacturers: Gemfan, DAL and HQProp. They all use different materials in their manufacturing process that affects the in-flight feel of the props almost as much as the design themselves. Changing out props is a great way to stay excited about going to the field every day – always something new (and cheap!) to try out.
Interested in learning about how props can cause such changes in performance? Check out Novuh’s Propeller Buyer’s Guide. It has a wealth of information that will help you understand the science behind the props we use. Rotor Riot put together a great video highlighting the differences between some of the most popular styles of props.
Pay attention to your OSD / telemetry
This is a mistake I made frequently when starting out. I would get so wrapped up in flying that I would ignore how low my batteries were getting. This is a great way to chew through the lifespan of your batteries by constantly draining them way below their recommended targets. Pay attention to your OSD or telemetry to be aware of things like battery power levels so that you don’t accidentally have your quad fall out of the sky because you drained it completely. If you are using an OSD, it can help display customized settings such as what mode you are in or if your quadcopter is armed or not. Take some time to get familiar with your OSD and customize it to your liking.
So, tired of puffing your expensive batteries? Save money by following a few simple steps to get Taranis telemetry up and running. Check out OscarLiang’s writeup here. Similarly, check out this videos on setting up alerts on your Taranis.
Adjust your rates
Make adjustments early and often to your rates. In our advanced guide, Novuh talks about adjusting your rates up constantly to force yourself to get finer and finer tuned control over your quadcopter. As you start getting comfortable with your rates and find yourself wanting to make tighter turns, feel free to play around with your rate settings to push you and your quad further. You can see this in our going advanced video as well. While some of these tips may be a little more advanced for the readers of this article (the video is called advanced tips after all!), they are good concepts to keep in mind while flying!
Control is one of the most important concepts to focus on when starting out. Going full throttle and making wild turns in an uncontrolled fashion is a poor way to learn. Sure, you should be pushing yourself to fly faster and with greater agility, but it should always be from a place of control. It may be tempting to try and replicate the latest freestyle videos on YouTube, but those guys have immense levels of control and practice before undergoing any of their stunts.
How do you practice better control? Start with your camera work – keep your path in focus and try and fly as smoothly as possible. One thing that helped me was recording footage and then playing it back after I got home from flying. While sitting at my desk away from the field, I was able to critique my flying and see simple mistakes that I would work on correcting the next time I went to the field. This identification process made it much easier to target areas I was struggling with. As time went on, my footage looked smoother and much more controlled.
Finally – fly as much as you can
Nothing beats flight time. Just like working with the Hubsan and the simulators, the more you fly and practice, the better you will get. You for sure won’t progress if you don’t go out and fly. Even if you can just fly for a battery to two, getting out to the field and practicing consistently will do wonders for your skillset.
Hopefully this helps give you some tips for when you feel ready to fly your first mini quad. Did we miss anything? What helped you when you were starting out? Feel free to let us know in the comments below!