In Part 1, I wrote about buying a new or used drone and getting it registered. Now it’s time to unbox it and prepare for its maiden voyage. Here is an excellent YouTube tutorial from DetroitBORG called “DJI Phantom 4 Unboxing and Review”. I highly recommend watching this if you purchased a later model DJI Phantom. Hopefully, you have the sturdy Styrofoam box with carrying handle that it came in along with a set of 4 propeller blades and an extra set.
Propellers, similar yet different
In each set of propellers, there are two subtly different blades, two of them quick lock to the motors in a clockwise fashion and the other two counterclockwise. Two of the rotors have black indicator dots on them and these accept only the propellers with the black ring. The other two rotors don’t have any dots. They accept only the silver ringed props. You cannot accidentally put propellers on to the Phantom incorrectly because they won’t lock in place. Always check that each blade is firmly locked. Do not transport with the blades in place and pay attention to the condition of the props as nicks and gouges can cause vibration.
The Phantom comes with one battery giving you 25-30 minutes of total flight time. Most fliers I know have at least 2 extra batteries. Make sure they are fully charged, as they don’t arrive charged or hold their charge well in storage. Consider buying a multi-battery charging base and a car charger. Familiarize yourself with how the battery is inserted and make sure it firmly locks in.
P4 Propellors, black and silver rings Multi-battery charger 12-volt car charger accessory
All images from DJI official website
Download flying apps
At this point, you should have downloaded at least two apps to your smartphone:
- The DJI Go App. This is what most people initially use to operate their drones.
- The B4UFly App. This is a free app from the FAA that gives you the status of the airspace where you intend to fly. Hopefully, you will have a clear “status” indicator but warnings are not uncommon.
Fly & No Fly zones
DJI has an evolving GEO program. GEO stands for Geospatial Environment Online. Through the DJI Go app, it automatically provides up to date guidance regarding the status of the airspace you intend to fly in. The following is taken directly from the DJI official website:
If you want more depth on GEO, you can find it here: (http://www.dji.com/flysafe/geo-system)
Be sure you have the latest version of the software and firmware. There are software and firmware in both the drone and the controller. Even if you just purchased your drone, it may not be up to date. This may keep you grounded! If you are flying somewhere with poor phone or internet service, a field download may not be possible. Know that there are special cables intended for these upgrades so be sure to keep them close. Also, if you haven’t flown for a while, set things up before you leave home and make sure you have the latest software and app versions uploaded.
OK, so now you have a drone in hand with a fully charged battery, undamaged props and a charged controller. Everything has the latest software/firmware. Unless you purchased a controller with a built in smart device, you will need a lightning cable. Consider buying a short 1’ cable to keep things neat. Amazon has quite a deal on 5, 1’ cables for $9.99 for Prime members.
The next step is to plan your first flight. Here are a few options:
- You have a responsible and knowledgeable friend who is willing to accompany you on your maiden voyage.
- You have found a meetup.com drone group in your area. Contact them. They have probably scouted out picturesque, safe sites and most pilots I know are more than happy to share their knowledge and opinions.
- You’re going bold and solo.
This is one of several drone meetup groups in my area
- Identify a reasonable place to fly. Check with the B4UFly app to see if it meets FAA requirements. A reasonable place has few or no people, a good line of sight, no immediate private property and few or no powerlines.
- Solid landing sites
- No signs prohibiting drones
- No farmers with shotguns
- Battery securely in and 4 green lights
- 4 sound propellers firmly locked in.
- You have removed the gimbal guard
- Controller fully charged.
- Low wind conditions. Generally, way less than 20 knots (yes there are Apps for that).
- No rain or drizzle. The Phantom is not weatherproof and the lens spots easily.
- DJI Go app up and running with no updates needed.
- Charged iPhone attached to the controller.
- This is important: Set your iPhone to “Do Not Disturb”. The last thing you want as a new pilot is to have the control screen taken over by an instant message, phone call or random alert!
- Look around at the airspace. Are there other drones up? Are there birds of prey flying? Emergency crews nearby? Any helicopters? If no to all this, let’s get started!
- Place the drone on flat, solid ground with no tall grasses, weeds, etc. nearby. Do not launch from a metal object such as a car hood.
- Wait for the DJI Go app to tell you that GPS coordinates have been obtained and that it is ready for flight.
- I recommend first few flights are done in “beginner mode” which limits distance from starting point, maximal altitude and speed.
- Remove the two gimbal guards. One made of foam and easy to overlook and the other a snap-on plastic fitting. If the gimbal guards are left in place, you won’t see the camera move.
- A short and a long push on the drone’s battery will power it up. A distinctive set of tones plays while the camera gimbal goes through its setup.
- A short and a long push on the controller will start it up too. The shut-down is just the reverse of this.
- Know the basic controls. The switch in the back left is for the flight modes: A, S, and P. You will want to have it on “P”. This is the Positioning mode for maximal obstacle sensing, Satellite and Vision Positioning systems are enabled.
Main Controller Settings
- Start the drone by pulling the two joysticks down and in. All four rotors start and are at idling speed. Now, your bird is vulnerable to crosswinds and nearby entanglements. Or choose to auto-launch from the iPhone. This starts the props on your bird spinning, then speed up to hover at 4 feet, waiting for your next command. Observe that it is holding a rock-solid position with no errors reporting.
- You are in command. Push the left-hand joystick forward to add altitude. Pull it back to lower the drone. Left and right movements of this stick rotates the bird clockwise and counter clockwise respectively. The right-hand stick controls horizontal movement. Push it forward to make the drone fly forward. Pull it back to reverse the direction. Left or right shifts of the stick make the drone move accordingly. Remember that this is true when the drone is facing away from you. If you turn it around so it is facing you, these controls reverse. Use them together and you are flying!
- Be modest about your goals
- Get comfortable with the joysticks: pay attention to your environment and your remaining battery life.
- Set the battery alarm to 30%. When it sounds begin landing procedures very soon. At this point, it is usually too late for starting the return trip home!
Aircraft Battery Settings
- When flight time is ending, bring the bird to your starting point. Be cautious with the “auto return to home function.” Learn how to use the joystick to fly it back to the ground. Take your time. Make sure you have a safe place to land which is solid and level. Hand catches, though cool looking are for later.
- After touchdown, pull the left joystick straight downward. The rotors may rev for a moment but don’t worry. They will shut off.
- Once the props stop, shut-down the drone first with a short and long push on its battery. Then do the same on the controller to power it down.
- Congratulate yourself for not losing your drone on the first flight!
- Replace the first battery with a fresh one and enjoy another flight.
- Practice using the sticks for starting and stopping the rotors and for controlling the drone when it is coming towards or away from you. Flying your drone when its front is facing you is a skill to develop deliberately over time. It is not intuitive. Learning how to fly a drone takes practice.
(Editor’s note: Chris Anson’s posts Becoming a Better Drone Pilot & Becoming a Better Drone Pilot Part 2 are great flying tutorials for beginning and advanced UAV pilots. Look for Steve’s next installment, “Your First Phantom Drone: Part 3 – Camera settings and beginner drone photography” coming soon to Photofocus.)