One of the biggest challenges for me when learning to fly was bridging the gap between what I call “basic” FPV flying: weaving around trees and poles at ground level in acro mode – and flying the way all the pros do: spinning OVER the trees, shooting narrow gaps and generally defying gravity. While I can’t claim that I’m anywhere near as talented as Skitzo or Charpu, I do think I have a general idea of how they do what they do now. What is really lacking is the thousands of hours of practice at this point.
What I’d like to go over this article are tips and suggestions I wish I had read when I was an intermediate flier. The idea is to give intermediate fliers a “laundry list” of gear changes and routines to try out as they continue improving themselves.
Gear & Set-up
I think one of the biggest fallacies that float around is that pro-level flying is 100% skill. Skill is no doubt very important, but so is having the right gear and having it set-up the correct way. Figuring this out can end up costing you a lot of money though. I’m hoping I can save some money for some of you by breaking out what I believe are the most important upgrades you can make to your quad. You can find these upgrades in the lists below.
A disclaimer: this list assume you have a decent quad that flies well. I’m not going to add basics like circularly polarized VTX antennas or brushless motors. If you are just getting into the hobby, I highly recommend you peruse our Drone Racing Guide for numerous articles on these subjects. As a general rule of thumb, most of the suggestions below are improvements that can be made on many of the RTF quads you can buy on the market.
First up are the things you have to have. All of the items here are things that, when disabled or removed from my quads, make them nearly unfly-able to me. By that I mean I immediately revert back to “basic” flying because flying like a caffeine-crazed bat immediately results in a crash or is altogether impossible.
Betaflight & Air Mode
Yes it’s got the name “beta” in the name. No, that should not scare you. We collectively have hundreds of hours on bleeding-edge betaflight releases and still have yet to encounter anything we would call a bug. Betaflight has feature additions that are, quite frankly, essential to precision flying. I would say air mode is the most important of these for intermediate pilots.The reason is it makes it pretty trivial to perform crisp, precise maneuvers with the throttle fully chopped. Many pros do not use air mode but I think that it is an essential learning tool you can turn off later.
BlHeli ESC running Damped Light
Damped-light is the 100% essential item here. If it is off, your quad will be very “floaty” and acro maneuvers will lack the crispness you need for precision flying. Please note that BlHeli ESCs do not have damped light enabled by default. If you did not specifically enable it, it is not enabled – go do it now! (This and a lot more are covered in our Cleanflight set-up article). All KISS ESCs also have this feature installed and enabled by default.
CCD Flight Camera
This would be an HS1177 or PZ0420 for most fliers out there. If you bought an RTF quad, chances are you do not have a CCD flight camera – but chances are there is one on the market you can upgrade to. The reason this is essential is that proper visibility when you are constantly going from a 100% sky to a 100% ground view is essential, especially when flying in close proximity to trees or other objects. CMOS cameras just do not cut it in this regard. When looking at the sky, they adjust their screen brightness to darken the light – and when that view is shifted the ground the details are subsequently very hard to make out. CCD cameras do not do this. Search YouTube for “CCD vs CMOS” to see more examples of what I am talking about.
Highly adjustable camera angles
You should have an adjustable range between 20-40 degrees on your quad. This doesn’t mean you have to buy a new frame – you may just need to get clever with a CAD design tool and print yourself a new camera mount. However you do it – the way I fly with camera angles >30 degrees is substantially different than the way I fly when they are 0-20 degrees. The reason is because at 30 degrees, you have a significant built-in forward speed to all of your maneuvers when generally keeping the camera straight and level forward. This makes some pro-level maneuvers much easier to accomplish then they would otherwise be if you were staring at the ground 100% of the time.
Flying with 4-cell batteries is essential for any real acro or racing flying on 5″ miniquads. It bumps your thrust-to-weight ratio well above 5:1 and allows you to fly at the 30 degree camera angles you need while still allowing a margin of thrust to recover from mistakes. I am actually coming around to the belief that all miniquad pilots should be flying 4S, starting when they are beginners. The reason is that having that extra thrust can often get you out of crashes you generally cannot “burst” away from on 3-cells. On the flip side, a throttle expo can smooth your throttle curve to feel very similar to 3 cells in most situations. You can learn more about choosing batteries in our battery buyers guide.
Next are the things you should probably look into if you aren’t already using them. Personally – without these things, I still fly pretty well – it just kind of, well, sucks.
Latency is king in FPV. Unlike line-of-sight flying, you have add the latency of your FPV system on top of the latency of your control system in any consideration. Reducing that latency in any way possible is extremely important. One of the most noticeable decreases in latency for me came when I moved from CPPM to a serial RX. In my case – that was moving to a Spektrum satellite clone (the Lemon RX diversity satellite) – but for the FrSky guys that’ll mean moving to an X4R or XSR with S-Bus. The difference between the D4R and either of these is incredibly noticeable. Every time I go back I have to significantly slow down my flying to compensate.
There’s a reason why pretty much every pro out there flies tri-blades: they simply fly better. Don’t fall prey to the common logic that tri-blades are less efficient than 2-bladed props: yes they are, but efficiency isn’t the whole picture when it comes to props. What tri-blades offer is a hard-to-explain “crispness” to your flying. I have never shown another pilot tri-blade props and not had them walk away amazed.
Low loop times
Betaflight defaults to a looptime of 1000 out of the box. These days, pretty much every flight controller is capable of bringing that number down to at least 250. This results in a noticeable improvement in overall flight precision – similar in a lot of ways to tightening up your PIDs from a loose tune. Of note is if you do adjust your looptime, make sure you are aware you will need to re-tune your quad at the same time. Otherwise – why not do it?
As I’ll get into below – crashing is an essential aspect to learning fast. If you are constantly putting yourself in tight spots, you’ll be learning the muscle memories necessary to fly better. That doesn’t work too well, however, if your quad self destructs every time you crash. Durability is largely determined by the frame. If you having a lot of issues with breaking components, consider changing your frame to something more durable. You can also check out our article on durability to get some build tips on how to make your quad more durable.
These are some of the parts or changes I made that I thought would make a huge difference but, in fact, did not. This isn’t to say these things are pure snake-oil – they just are not nearly as important as the above items.
F3 Flight Controller
There are two models of the STM32 microprocessor that sits at the core of our quadcopter’s flight computer: F1 and F3. The F1 models are missing some features that make them generally slower and less desirable. However, Boris B (the developer behind BetaFlight) has done a lot of work to ensure that F1 controllers are still very relevant in the upper echelons of performance. This parity may disappear in the near future but as of right now you really do not get a whole lot of advantage for upgrading to an F3 controller.
Now – if you are starting out fresh – I recommend you buy an F3 controller. The Foxeer F3 flight controller can be purchased for the same price as all but the cheapest F1 boards and you effectively future-proof yourself in the process and get a ton of cool features that only F3 controllers have. I just would recommend those who are still flying on a Naze to spend their upgrade money elsewhere.
As we explained in our motor buyers guide, we’re living in the age of the N52-magnet brushless motors. These really upped the game as to how much thrust you can get out of a 2205 sized motor. However – assuming you already have an older 2205 motor on your miniquad – I would argue that a 10% or so increase in thrust is not going to propel you to the next level of performance as an intermediate pilot. Especially considering that you will be hard pressed to find four of these new-generation motors for under $80 total. That money is just simply better spent elsewhere.
I’m interested to see how others feel about this – but I just am not drinking the frame kool-aid. Yes, a lighter frame will fly better than a heavier frame. Yes, my X-frames fly SLIGHTLY better than my H-frames. Yes, a durable frame is 100% worth it’s weight in gold when compared to a flimsy one. BUT, properly set-up, my $20 ZMR250 is just as capable of amazing acro maneuvers as my $120 Alien and as my $90 Krieger. I think a lot of people get caught up compare their old ZMR250s or what have you to their newer, more expensive frames by neglecting to consider all the fancy new electronics and software that are loaded in the newer frames. Hell yes – in that case the newer, more expensive frames are going to fly amazing compared to the older ones! For me, personally, the frame is mostly a cosmetic, convenience and durability decision (as I mention in our miniquad frame buyers guide). If you are interested in getting better as a pilot, I would spend my money elsewhere.
Tips for Getting Better
Assuming you have your gear in order – the next step is practice! Thing is, with the proper gear things will start falling into place very quickly. You might be surprised by how little practice you will need before things start “clicking”. That being said, I do have a few more tips you can follow to improve your skills, hopefully they will help:
Start bumping up your rates
“Edgy”, precise flying requires that your miniquad is able to quickly snap to any attitude you desire. To do this you need to work yourself up to having some pretty high rates.
When it comes to rates, I personally only adjust the pitch, roll and yaw rates found in the PID tab of Cleanflight Configurator. Every quad I set-up starts I start with an RC rate of 1.00, then only tune the pitch, roll & yaw until it feels right. I recommend you do the same.
When increasing your rates, make sure your pitch, roll and yaw expo is sufficiently high. This preference is going to be personal opinion. That being said, if pressed I would suggest you have no less than .7 expo on pitch and roll, and never less than .5 on yaw. If you have less than that, my guess is that your rates are not high enough – either that, or you are Superman.
Most intermediate pilots will be used to rates that are simply way too slow. What you want to do is get comfortable with rates that will have your quad flipping or rolling, at a minimum one time every second. You also want a full yaw rotation at least once every 1.5 seconds at full yaw stick.
I treated the training process to getting used to higher rates similar to how I treat the same process in FPS video games: I started at a rate I was comfortable with and every few flights I bumped my Pitch, Roll and Yaw rates up a few points. Then I flew the quad for a few more days before doing it again. If done slow enough, you will hardly notice the changes at all. Regularly practice full stick rolls and flips and practice letting off on the stick exactly as your quad rolls or flips level with the horizon. You will slowly but surely get used to higher and higher rates.
As I said earlier, you are going for rates that get you rotations in the pitch and roll under 1 rotation per second, and on the yaw axis slightly over 1 rotation per second. On most quads as Betaflight version 2.6.1, this corresponds to a setting of around .6 for the pitch and roll axis and 1.2 for the yaw. Don’t take these numbers for gospel though – your quad may behave differently and the settings may change with versions of Betaflight.
Think in 3-dimensions
When I was initially learning to fly FPV miniquads, I did most of my flying near ground level. This meant flying under branches and around poles and such. It was a ton of fun and a great way to learn the basics, but it wasnt until I started flying over and through obstacles that I really started progressing my skills. The next time you are at your favorite field, try hopping over a tree or hedge instead of flying underneath it. You may find some new, fun additions to your routine that’ll improve your skills along the way.
Don’t be afraid to crash more
If you want to learn to fly better, you have to push yourself. That means crashing a lot. Luckily, most miniquads are crashing machines. They bounce off pavement, concrete, trees and garage doors with nothing but broken props to show for it. I believe if you are not crashing a couple of times every flying session, you are not learning. Sometimes that’s OK – it’s nice to just relax sometimes – but if you want to learn and you find yourself not crashing, try to push yourself harder.
When I’m feeling in the mood for some carnage, I’ll generally try to set myself up near a particularly difficult obstacle – a gap between trees for instance. Then, when I inevitably crash near it I don’t need to walk a half mile to pick up my quad.
Another great tip to save you some frustration came from Reddit user /u/TheRecursion. Assuming you have a good number of batteries, use the first few packs to practice things you are familiar with. Just get the stick time. Then, as you get to the last couple of packs start pushing yourself. That way if you do some damage, at least you’ll have gotten some good stick time in.
As you progress in your skills and start adding verticality to your maneuvers, you’ll need to start worrying about crashing into the tops of trees. For this reason, I recommend always bringing a rope and water bottle to the field. You can throw the water bottle with a rope attached over a tree branch and then wiggle it judiciously to get your quad down. You should also make sure you are flying the latest version of Betaflight. A recent version (I believe it was 2.5) made it so that you can arm your quad even if it is upside down. This helps a lot in both finding your quad when it is stuck in a field (assuming you dont have a buzzer) and can help you get the quad unstuck from a tree. Just remember that you risk serious damage to your ESC and/or motors every time you arm them when they cannot spin. If you must do it, keep the arming time very short.
Practice your camera-work
The trick to FPV flying is learning how to always keep your objective front and center in your camera’s view. Whether you’re shooting the next Mattystuntz acro video flying proximity to trees or blitzing through race gates – the key to situational awareness is making sure you can see what you want to fly towards. This is very much like the concept I learned in drivers ed where I was taught that you generally tend to drive where you are looking, so you should always look through turns or into the lane you are merging into.
For FPV flying, this means learning to work your pitch, roll and yaw axis as you fly over, around and through objects. As a first exercise, start about 500ft away from an isolated tree or pole. Fly directly at it, and as you pass it, adjust your quadcopter so it is kept in view the whole time. Properly done, you should start circling around it. Try to maintain an exact distance as you circle. Next, do the same thing while adjusting your altitude as you circle the tree.
Once you’ve mastered that, try flying OVER the tree or pole. Once you are squarely over the object, cut the throttle and maneuver the quad to keep the object in sight the whole time. Be ready to flatten out and hammer the throttle if you get too close. Congratulations, you just replicated the maneuver used in 60% of most acro videos!
Next, you can try “hopping” over objects. This works really well with tree or hedge rows with clearings on both sides. Fly along the row and at some point roll slightly towards the hedge, “pop” the throttle a little bit, cut back to idle and maneuver the quad so that it does a 180 degree horse-shoe shaped turn over the hedge, keeping it in view the whole time. When the maneuver is completed, you should be flying back towards yourself on the other side of the hedge row.
To accompany this guide, we put together a video highlighting some of the exercises – check it out! Thanks to Martin Kanarr for the idea!