Learning to fly a quadcopter can be pretty intimidating. There are so many choices that it can be overwhelming figuring out where to even start and what you need to learn. While it may be tempting to go out and purchase the latest and greatest from DJI or a fully kitted out racer, cutting your teeth with a micro quad will make the learning period significantly cheaper. Part of learning the ropes will involve lots of crashes, lots of broken props, and likely a few dents and dings to your quad. Destroying a micro quad, and in turn learning the basics, is a much easier pill to swallow than demolishing a Phantom Pro on your first flight. Best of all, when you graduate to the next level, the controls are more or less the same!
The goal of this guide is to provide a handy reference to use when preparing to go to the field, locations to think about practicing at, as well as exercises that you can use at the field to get you comfortable flying as quickly as possible. To make things more approachable, I have split this guide into three separate parts (links and such are below).
First things first, if you haven’t already, go check out Chococopter’s guide to micro quads (click here). This entire guide is structured around the assumption that you are starting out using a micro quad. I personally recommend the Hubsan X4, as that is what I personally learned using, but you cant go wrong with the Syma X11 either.
Other parts in the series
Part 2 – Finding a Place to Fly (you are reading this one!)
What to look for in a location
Now that you have your bag packed and batteries charged, it is time to start thinking about locations you can practice at.
I personally made this mistake when taking my Hubsan out for the first time. I went to a field on top of a hilly location that was notorious for wind in the late afternoon. Sure enough when I got there, I could barely get off the ground without the wind causing me to lose control of my quad. Look for locations that are sheltered (yet open – more on this in the next paragraph) and protected from heavy winds. You can also use a site like Weather Underground to see what the wind speeds look like for the day.
Open space with nothing overhead
I am guessing the last thing that you are going to want to do is climb a tree or get onto a roof to recover your quad. Find a location with a wide open space that allows for plenty of margin for error. Watch out for trees, buildings, power lines, and any other overhead debris that could cause your flight to end abruptly. I mentioned that you want to find a location sheltered from the wind, but you also want to make sure that you have enough overhead space to fly safely and without fear of losing your brand new quadcopter.
Few people (and pets)
Quads attract people. Going to a popular local park with lots of people will inevitably cause someone to come over and ask questions or just be interested in watching you fly. For me, I found this distracting early on when learning. While I was happy to show people the quad and explain that I am not flying around filming people at the park, it did take a decent amount of time to sate their curiosity. Also, dogs love chasing quadcopters. The amount of times I have had a dog come running out of nowhere to start following my Hubsan or ZMR is ridiculous. Obviously you don’t want to give Fido a new chew toy (or an expensive vet bill) so keep these things in mind when scouting your location.
Access to power
If you can find a park or field where you can safely setup a charger and charge batteries while you are flying you have struck pure gold. Your biggest limiting factor after you start feeling comfortable on the sticks will be battery time. You can expect most mini quads to have a flight time of around five to ten minutes. Being able to cycle through batteries while charging will give you significantly less downtime and reduce trips back to home base to recharge batteries. However, make sure it is safe/legal for you to use any power source where you go.
Remember the gear list in part 1? Find someplace you can easily unpack and setup shop so you are comfortable flying. The goal here is lots of flight time. If you picked up a bunch of extra batteries you are looking at around an hour of flight time. Make sure you can find a location where you will be comfortable hanging out at for an extended period of time.
With these things in mind, here are some locations to consider:
- Public schools with connected fields (during non school hours!)
- Public parks
- Sports fields – baseball diamonds work fantastic for training. Similarly, soccer/football fields work great if there are markings on the ground for reference points while training
Locations to be careful about
- Indoors – losing control indoors exponentially increases your chance of crashing into something you probably shouldn’t be crashing into. Until you are more comfortable with basic maneuvers, try and fly outdoors (weather permitting)
- Private property (without permission) – especially commercial areas. Most commercial areas will have private security that will most likely tell you to leave.
- Parking lots – can be great, but again private security can be an issue.
- Private schools – in general steer clear. Depends on the location of course, but from my experience these are usually well gated or have some sort of security detail
- Fenced areas (backyards) – you don’t want to be the guy that has to go to your next door neighbor asking to search their backyard for your quad.
- RC fields, flight club locations, etc. Seems counterintuitive, but check the field restrictions before assuming you are allowed to fly. For example, many fields in the Los Angeles area are more RC airplane focused and aren’t too friendly to people flying quadcopters. Sucks, but just the way it is.
- Locations with rough terrain – while the location may be good, flying in places that can damage your quadcopter via crashing can be rough. One example here would be sand – nothing beats up and dirties your quad better than sand.
Locations to absolutely stay away from
- Airports (minimum five mile no fly zone).
- Government buildings.
- Places with lots of water hazards.
- Event spots – places that do concerts in the park, farmers markets, pet parks, etc. are usually crowded and have lots of things to crash into – especially on weekends. Similarly, stadiums, universities, and places of worship are most likely no go zones.
Now that you know what to look for, and have some ideas of potential locations, how do we find a specific spot to fly?
Great tool for looking at an area before you head out. Lets you see the elevation changes, any potential obstacles, and also any fenced areas. I have used street view many times outside of a park or school area to see how easy access is and to get a better perspective of what the layout of the location is – all without leaving my house!
Local flight clubs
Check on Facebook, RCGroups, etc. For local flight locations and meetups. This can also have the great side benefit of being able to meet people that are also passionate about flying.
Exploring your city
Look for places when commuting home from work, or just by walking around. Once you start getting into the flying mindset, you should be able to find some locations that fit your needs.
Parks with well marked fields are fantastic. Practice exercises become so much easier, as these fields give a point of reference for turns or course layout without having to bring anything extra. Baseball diamonds are particularly good for this, since even if they are not well maintained, the shape and general layout is usually still easy to see. Also, outside of little league season (Spring), most baseball diamonds see little use and aren’t terribly crowded. If no markings are available where you are flying, worry not, I gotcha covered.
I know that this seems to be an absurd amount of information on finding a spot to fly. I fully expect most people to just rip open the box of their quadcopter and start flying then and there. However, always remember that these things can be extremely dangerous. Sure they are marketed as fun toys, but they can cause serious damage to people and property. Here’s the thing – you become a steward of the community when flying. If you mess up and make it onto the 6 o’clock news because you stupidly flew into a power line or crashed into a baby or something, you make all of us look bad. It sucks, but it’s the way it is. Drones in general have a pretty bad reputation right now. Don’t be the guy that makes it worse.
Alright so you have a spot that is safe to fly at and are itching to fly. Ok, ok, I’m done talking about all the pre-flight stuff (mostly). In the next part of this series we will finally talk about flying.