Answers to the Most Common Questions About Drones

You decide to buy yourself that drone you’ve been thinking about. You open the box, look at everything and suddenly realize you don’t know where to start. Everyone has a ton of questions when they get their first drone. “How do I register my drone?” “How do I turn this thing on?”  “Can I fly it inside?” Even experienced drone pilots have questions about settings and regulations. You will discover, if you haven’t already, that there’s always more to learn. If you need more “in-depth” explanations of how to get the most from your drone, be sure to head to our Learning Center


Getting Started

Can I fly my drone inside?

You can, but I certainly wouldn’t do it until you have some flying experience under your belt.  You need have a very good feel for just how responsive your drone is to your input. When you fly outside your drone connects to multiple GPS satellites that help it maintain its position. When you move indoors, the drone can’t connect to the satellites and you will be flying in what is known as ATTI (or Altitude) Mode. Without the GPS assist your drone will tend to drift and will require you to be much more active on the control sticks. Fly in ATTI mode just once and you will have whole new appreciation for GPS.

Do I need a license to fly a drone?

You only need a license if you want to use your drone to further a business. That would include things like:

  • Getting paid to shoot photos or video for other people
  • Selling photos or video you have already taken
  • Monetize videos on a YouTube channel
  • Use photos or video for real estate ads or listings

Any of these commercial uses require you to have what is known as a Part 107 Certification from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration.) You can find out more at the FAA website.

Do I need insurance to fly my drone?

It’s not required. If you are flying commercially you should look into a liability policy that will cover you every time you fly.  Another option is to purchase insurance on an “as needed” basis using the Verifly app. (Available for iOS and Android.) When you open the app on your phone it detects your location. Choose the coverage you want and it gives you a price. For most locations, it will cost you $10 to get $1,000,000 in liability coverage. You can even send proof of insurance to a client if they want it.

Do I need to register my drone?

Yes. Congress slipped a requirement for drone registration into a defense spending bill which President Trump signed in December 2017. Just go to the official registration site  and set up an account. If you are going to fly recreationally, register under section 336. If you are going to fly commercially choose the part 107 option. Either way, the cost is $5.00. Just make sure you are at the official FAA site. If you do a Google search for drone registration the top hits are for sites that will make it seem as though they are the official government registration site, but they will charge you $24.95. What do you get for the extra $19? A couple of stickers with your registration number to put on your drone. Skip the scam and go to the FAA site.

Does it matter what order I turn things on in?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I usually launch the DJI Go4 app first just because it’s easier to do before it’s attached to the Remote Controller. Then I power up the Controller. Finally, I power up the drone. When I’m done flying I just reverse the order.

How do I turn my drone on?

First, it’s not a silly question. DJI drones and controllers don’t turn on and off like every other electronic device I’ve ever owned. I pressed the power button and nothing happened. I pressed it twice—same thing. I pressed and held it down for a couple seconds. Nope, still not turning on. I felt like an idiot. I had to look in the manual to figure out how to turn it on. Here’s the secret code to spare you the humiliation of looking in the manual:

  • Press the power button once and you get an indicator of the charge status (lights on the batteries and a percentage readout on the controllers).
  • Press the power button once, pause just a bit, then press then press and hold until you see stuff happening. If you do the two presses as fast as you double-click a mouse button it won’t work. You have to get that little pause in there.
  • Shutting down works the same way. Press, then press and hold.

This works for all DJI drones and controllers.

How long do I need to fly before I take my drone out of beginner mode?

Beginner mode limits how far, fast, and high you can fly. It also makes the control sticks less responsive which gives you more time to recover if you push a stick the wrong way.   If you don’t need to go farther, faster, or higher than it will allow, you can stay there forever.

How long does it take to get comfortable flying?

There is no magic number of days or flights that applies to every person. For me, it was probably when I hit 6-8 hours of flight time. One of the keys to getting comfortable is developing muscle memory so you don’t have to consciously think about moving the sticks when you are flying, but can just react instinctively. The best way to do that is repetition and frequency.

My first week I did dozens of short flights at low altitude, mostly up and down the sidewalk in front of my house just to get time on the controls. Then I went to a big grass field near my house to practice flying circles and figure eights to help develop that muscle memory on the controls.

How old do I have to be to fly a drone?

To fly recreationally there is no set age limit. Use common sense. Some drones are expensive and can be dangerous if not flown properly. You have to be at least 16  to get a Part 107 Certification to be able to fly commercially in the United States.

What’s the difference between a UAV, UAS, Quadcopter, and a drone?

None. UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. UAS (which is the terminology the FAA uses) is Unmanned Aerial System. Quadcopter is a term that was popular several years ago when drones started becoming widely available. Drone is what regular folks call them.

Where can I fly my drone?

You can fly anywhere it’s not prohibited. Prohibited areas include:

  • Within five miles of most airports
  • sports stadiums or arenas during events
  • Over crowds
  • Over traffic.
  • National Parks and many state parks

Local governments may have rules about city or town parks as well. Using the AirMap app on your phone or tablet makes it easy to check to see if it’s OK to fly in any location.

Questions About Features/Apps

Can I cancel an automatic landing triggered by a low battery?

There are a couple of scenarios that will trigger the Return-to-Home failsafe feature of your drone. In most cases, you can cancel the Return-to-Home and fly the drone manually. Just tap the “X” on your phone or tablet screen. However, once your battery reaches a critically low level, the drone will land itself and there is nothing you can do. Better to land, even if it is straight down into a tree than to keep flying and end up falling out of the sky because the battery ran out.

How can I check to see if it is legal to fly at any particular location?

Go to the App Store or Google Play and download AirMap for your iOS or Android device. It’s free and it’s awesome. Launch the app and it will detect your location and alert you to any airspace conflicts you need to be aware of. If you are flying for recreation and need to contact an airport to let you know you’re flying nearby, AirMap will give you the phone number. If you are flying commercially and are near one of the airports that are part of the new digital authorization program, you can get your authorization to fly in seconds right from this app. Everyone who flies a drone needs to have AirMap.

Is there any reason to NOT use the Return-to-Home feature every time I land?

Imagine you launched your drone from a boat and have been filming yourself looking cool as you race across the lake. You won’t look nearly as cool when you activate Return-to-Home and watch your expensive drone land in the lake at the exact spot it took off from, which is now a hundred yards from your current location.

Or let’s say you took off under some trees or overhead wires, flew out a ways to a clear spot then ascended. Return to Home doesn’t retrace your flight path, it simply flies from wherever it is to a spot directly above where it took off then descends straight down, in this case right into the trees or power lines. This tutorial on Understanding Return-to-Home might be helpful.

What do I do if my DJI Go 4 App freezes or crashes?

Don’t panic. Let go of the control sticks and your drone will stop moving and hover. Now just relaunch the DJI Go4 App and it should reconnect to the drone automatically. If it doesn’t, assuming your drone is within sight, you can just use the controls and fly it back to your location and land it. If you have lost sight of the drone or don’t want to manually fly it back you can hit the Return to Home button on your controller to initiate an auto land sequence. The important thing is to stay calm and resist the urge to just start moving the control sticks.

What happens if I lose the video feed on my phone or tablet?

I’ve had this happen a a number of times. While it’s disconcerting, it’s not really dangerous. You still have full control of the drone with the Remote Controller and will be able to land safely even if you can’t restore the video link. Try these steps in order:

  1. Check the cable from the Controller to the phone and make sure it’s tight.
  2. Unplug the cable from your phone and plug it back in.
  3. Close and re-launch the DJI Go4 App
  4. Look up into the sky, locate your drone, and fly it back to where you are.
  5. Hit the Return to Home button on the controller and your drone land in front of you.

What happens if my controller loses the connection to the drone?

That depends on how you have it set. By default, your drone will automatically return to the home point that was set when it took off if it loses signal. However, you can change that setting so it will simply hover at the point it is at when it loses signal. It will just hang out there until it runs out of battery at which time it will land itself and you may never be able to find it. I would leave it at the default. Just make sure you have the Return to Home altitude set nice and high before you take off so it won’t run into anything on it’s way back to the home point.

What is Sport Mode and should I fly in it?

Sport mode turns your drone from a Cessna to an F-16 fighter jet. Well, maybe not that dramatic of a change, but it will give you around a 20 mph boost in speed. If you are shooting video and want beautiful cinematic shots, you’re not going to fly in sport mode because it would just be too fast. If you are shooting boats on a lake or a car or motorcycle on a road you are likely going to need to kick it into Sport Mode to be able to keep up. Just keep in mind that when you switch to Sport mode the obstacle avoidance system gets turned off.

What is the best height to set for return to home?

That depends entirely on the terrain around you. Just look around and estimate the height of the tallest obstacle that could possibly get between you and your drone, add 50-100 feet because you can’t really be sure how high that big tree is and set it at that. Better to err on the high side. I’ve noticed that there is a lot less stuff to hit at 150 feet than there is at 15 feet. This tutorial on Understanding Return-to-Home might be helpful.

What is the precision landing feature and should I use it?

If you are using the Auto Takeoff feature (and seriously, why wouldn’t you) you will have the option to check a box that turns on a feature called precision landing. What happens is the drone will take off, go straight up to 25′ or so and take a picture looking straight down. After you have flown around awhile and hit the Return to Home button the drone will use the GPS and compass to navigate back to the home point that was set on takeoff. When it gets close, it will use the picture it took to pinpoint the exact landing spot and set itself down. To be honest, I’ve not noticed much of a difference between the Precision and “Non-precision” landing. I usually land my drone manually anyhow unless I’m lazy or have lost track of which way it is facing, in which case I’ll let Return to Home take over. I still get amazed that it can bring my drone back from wherever it is and land it within a few inches of where it took off. 

What is Tripod Mode?

Tripod mode is one of the Intelligent Flight Modes available in the DJI Go4 App for the Mavic Pro and Phantom 4 Pro. It basically decreases the sensitivity of the flight controls and camera gimbal which results in very smooth, stable maneuvers. Flying in Tripod Mode really helps you get smooth and cinematic video footage. Top speed in Tripod Mode on a Mavic Pro is 2.2 mph and 5.6 mph for a Phantom 4 Pro, so if you need to fly from point A to point B in a hurry, you will need to switch out of tripod mode first.

Why do I always have to calibrate the compass?

Some people never get the warning about needing to calibrate their compass. I get it nearly every time I fly and often get it if I move to a new location. I don’t really know why.  Calibrating isn’t hard and only takes a few seconds. You just feel like an idiot if there are people around watching you hold your drone and turn around in a circle two times.

I have discovered if you are too close to a car or standing on concrete that contains a lot of steel rebar the compass calibration will fail. You will have to move a few feet away and do the dance all over again. Evidently, the GPS on your drone works in conjunction with the onboard compasses. GPS keeps track of the location and the compasses keep track of what direction it is heading. So if you do a Return-to-Home and your compass isn’t properly calibrated, it won’t know which direction to fly and might head off into the sunset.  I don’t want to risk it. I just do the dance as I’m told.

Why would I ever turn off obstacle avoidance?

There may be a time when you need get detailed photos of something and Obstacle Avoidance won’t let you get close enough. I run into the most often when doing roof inspections. Or sometimes you can get close enough, but you don’t want to listen to the warning beeps. Or maybe you just feel lucky and like living on the edge.

What’s a good app to use to check the weather before I fly my drone?

The one I use is UAV Forecast. It has a nice interface that gives you a lot of information with just a glance. If one of the conditions is outside the pre-set parameters (like it’s too windy) that block will show up in red. The free version gives you a forecast for the next 24 hours. It’s available for both iOS and Android. Check out my tutorial on UAV Forecast in the Learning Center.

Questions About Flying

Can I fly in the rain?

If you don’t mind ruining your drone. Save your flying for nice sunny days, or at least ones with no rain. The same would be true for snowy days, especially if it’s wet snow. Don’t see much of that here in Tampa, but I’ve heard about it.

Can I fly my drone from a boat?

Sure can, but there are a couple things you need to be aware of to make sure your drone doesn’t crash into your boat or end up the water.

Take off and Land From the Stern (Back)It’s simple physics. Your drone moves straight up when it takes off. If your boat is moving forward, you could drive right into the drone before it is high enough to clear the boat. If possible, stop the boat while your take off. If that’s not possible, take off from the back of the boat. The drone will just hover while you pull away. When it’s time to land, stop the boat and simply fly the drone to the boat. If you can’t stop the boat, bring the drone up from the rear and slowly fly it toward the stern. If you try to land on the front of the boat, the closing speed between the boat and the drone is going to make it very difficult to land safely.

Also, if you do not have a lot of clear space on your deck you might want to have a friend hand catch the drone. Practice your catching technique on land before trying it on a moving boat. Props are dangerous and will leave you with a souvenir scar if you mess up.

Be Aware of the Home PointBy default, your drone will automatically return to the Home Point that was set when it took off in the event of a critically low battery or a loss of signal. That’s a wonderful thing on land. But if you are on a boat, chances are you have been moving around. It’s a painful experience to watch your expensive drone slowly descend into the water in the exact spot your boat was at twenty minutes ago.

One option to avoid this experience is to turn off the Return-to-Home option in your settings.  and land your drone manually. Another option, which is safer in the case of signal loss, is to set a home point for a location on the shore. That way if your drone loses connection to your controller or your battery reaches a critically low level, your drone will land safely on dry ground and will be waiting for you when you get back to shore.

Can I fly with the gimbal cover on my Mavic Pro to protect my lens?

No, but I can see why it’s tempting since the cover is clear. Here’s the problem: there are air inlets behind the camera gimbal. The fan inside your Mavic draws air though these inlets to cool the internal electronics. Flying with the cover on blocks these inlets, and you are likely to have some overheating issues.

Do drones ever just fall out of the sky?

No piece of equipment is immune from malfunction, so I would not say they never just turn into bricks and fall back to earth. But under normal use, it’s not something to worry about. You should always go through a [thrive_2step id=’864′]pre-flight checklist [/thrive_2step] that includes things like checking to be sure the battery is fully seated and props are locked in place every single time you fly. You would be surprised how easy it is to get in a hurry and overlook important details.

Do drones ever just fly away?

If you believe everything you read on the internet (which I wouldn’t recommend) flyaways happen all the time. I worried about it when I first started flying because I had heard the horror stories, but I don’t even think about it now because it is such a remote possibility.

That being said, any technology is subject to failure, so I would hesitate to say that there has never been an instance of a drone just flying away. The ones I have looked at online that seem credible had had warning signs of impending doom like weak GPS signal and compass malfunctions. My advice is don’t ignore any warnings you are getting. Land your drone as quickly as possible.

Do propellers ever just fly off in flight?

I’ve heard of it happening but never had it happen to me. That’s a good reason to make sure you do a thorough [thrive_2step id=’864′]pre-flight checklist [/thrive_2step]. It’s also a good idea to hover a few feet off the ground for about 20 seconds after you take off to make sure everything is good to go. 

How far away can I fly my drone?

Farther than is legal, for sure. But in the United States, the FAA requires drones to be kept within visual line of site of the person flying. I have 20/20 vision and with clear skies, I can see a Mavic out to around 2,400 feet. I know what you’re thinking, “But I’ve seen tons of YouTube videos where people were flying their drones miles away.” I’ve seen them, too. Evidently the FAA doesn’t watch YouTube.

How high will my drone fly?

Higher than the FAA allows. In the United States, the legal altitude limit is 400’ above ground level. If you have your remote pilot certificate (meaning you passed your Part 107 test ) and are flying within 400′ of a structure, like a building or a tower, you are allowed to fly 400’ above the top of that structure so long as you don’t enter Class E airspace which typically begins at 1,200′ above ground level. So if you want to shoot the KVLY TV mast in Blanchard, North Dakota (which at 2,063′ is the tallest man-made structure in the US) you would have to file for an FAA waiver to get permission to fly in Class E Airspace.

Is it OK to fly over water?

Absolutely. One of the best things about flying over water is that there is nothing to run into. Just be careful about getting close to the trees along the banks if you are near shore, they have a nasty habit of reaching out and smacking drones. Also, make sure you pay attention to your battery levels especially if you are going to have to fly against the wind to get back to shore. If you do find yourself battling winds over water, try getting down low rather than going higher. In general, the winds are calmer at the surface.

What happens if a bird hits my drone?

Probably not going to end well for your drone. Fortunately, it’s a big sky and the odds of your drone and a bird meeting are very slim. However, flying down low and fast over a flock of gulls floating peacefully on a lake to see if you can spook them will greatly increase the odds. If you encounter a curious bird, the best tactic is to push your left stick forward which will cause your drone to go straight up. The bird will be jealous that you can fly straight up and hopefully lose interest.

What should I do if I lose sight of my drone?

Turn yourself into the FAA immediately. Just kidding. It happens.

First, let go of the control sticks so your drone will stop moving and just hover. If you scan the sky and don’t see it, look at the map in the bottom left corner of your phone or tablet. If you tap on it it will enlarge so you can actually see it. You will see a little dot which marks the home point (presumably you are close to that point) as well as a triangle that marks the location of the drone. If you push the left control stick left or right it will spin the drone around (technically it’s called yaw) and you will see the triangle move. When it is pointing toward the home point, let go of the left stick and push the right stick forward and the drone should now be flying towards you. Just make sure you are high enough to avoid any trees or other obstacles between its current location and you.

A second option is to press the Return to Home button on your controller or your phone or tablet. You will hear some very annoying loud beeping and a gentle, reassuring voice telling you that your drone is on its way back home to you. In just a couple minutes you sure hear the reassuring hum of rotors overhead.

What should I practice to get better at flying?

Landing safely. Working on flying patterns like circles, squares and figure eights will help get your brain and fingers in sync and working automatically. Once you have the control motions down, work on flying orbits around a fixed object. This combines several skills that are very helpful in any type of flying. Other than these things, fly as often as you can. Shorter sessions done frequently will benefit you more than long sessions infrequently.

What’s the highest wind I can fly in?

If you’re flying with the wind it doesn’t really matter how fast it’s blowing. However, assuming you will need to turn around at some point the top speed of the Mavic Pro is 40 MPH, so if the wind speed is 45 MPH you’ll never make it back. In general, if the winds are over 15 MPH I don’t fly if I am going to be anywhere near structures or trees. If I am out in the open, like over a lake, I will go up in 20-25 MPH winds, but that’s pretty much my limit. Just keep a close eye on your battery levels because fighting the wind will cause them to drain faster than normal.

Why do I get nervous when I fly high?

I don’t know, but many people do. I know I did. The first couple dozen times I flew, my heart was racing and I had a knot in my stomach. I was fine while i was looking at my screen, but was afraid to look up and see my drone in the sky. It was kind of the same feeling I get when I fly a kite and it starts to get pretty high. I got over it eventually, just by flying and seeing that nothing bad happened, I guess. Also, I found that if I had the drone out in front of me when it was up high rather than directly over my head it seemed to help.

Will my drone float if I crash over water?

It has the same buoyancy characteristics as a rock. So, no.

Questions About Regulations

Can I fly at night?

If you are flying as a hobbyist or have your Part 107 certification from the FAA but are flying for recreational purposes, no problem. If you have your Part 107 certification and are flying for business purposes no, you can’t fly at night. The FAA website has a good chart comparing the rules for hobbyists and commercial pilots. 

Can I fly my drone in a park?

Probably not. Drones are banned in all National Parks in the US and many states have rules against flying in State Parks as well. Your city or town might allow it though. Never hurts to ask. I called a county park recently to ask if I could fly a drone there. The person I talked to said, “Officially? No.”  But if the park wasn’t crowded and no one complained it would be OK. 

Can I fly over cars?

If they are driving on a road you need the drivers’ permission. 

Can I fly over houses in my neighborhood?

Generally speaking, in most places you can. People don’t own the airspace over their homes. Most local governments, but not all, recognize that and will allow you to fly over property you don’t own so long as you are not invading privacy or being a nuisance. Obviously, if you want to do a video of someone’s house where you orbit around it (a very common shot in real estate promotion videos) it is going to require that you fly above the adjacent properties. You might want to check your local ordinances before you do it, however, to avoid any problems. The bottom line is to use common sense and courtesy.

Can I fly over people?

Not unless you have their permission or they are under cover.

Can I sell photos or videos that I shoot with my drone?

Yes, so long as you have passed the FAA exam and received your Part 107 certification. 

Can I take pictures or video of property I don’t own?

There are a lot of gray areas here. Obviously, you can, or you would never be able to take pictures of anything outside of your own house. It basically comes down to privacy rights. I can fly over a neighborhood and shoot an aerial shot from 200’ as part of a real estate package with no problem. I cannot fly over a single house and shoot pictures of people in their fenced-in backyard without their permission. Common sense will go a long way in keeping you out of trouble on this one. The bottom line is you have to respect people’s right to privacy.

Do I need to register my drone?

Yes. Congress slipped a requirement for drone registration into a defense spending bill which President Trump signed in December 2017. Just go to the official registration site  and set up an account. If you are going to fly recreationally, register under section 336. If you are going to fly commercially choose the part 107 option. Either way, the cost is $5.00. Just make sure you are at the official FAA site. If you do a Google search for drone registration the top hits are for sites that will make it seem as though they are the official government registration site, but they will charge you $24.95. What do you get for the extra $19? A couple of stickers with your registration number to put on your drone. Skip the scam and go to the FAA site.

Do I really have to be able to see my drone at all times when I fly?

That’s the rule. The FAA makes it very clear that the person operating the aircraft must be able to see it at all times. Using binoculars or a spotting scope is cheating. Has to be seen with your naked eyes.

That being said, I would guess that everyone who has ever flown a drone has had the experience of watching it fly off into the distance until it’s just a tiny speck in the sky. Then they look down at their screen to check something and when they look back up they can’t find their drone.

If that happens, don’t panic. Since you probably are not sure which way it is facing, it’s going to be difficult to fly it back manually. I know there is a map in the corner of your controller with an icon showing which way your drone is heading but you’re operating just below the panic threshold here and might not be able to make sense out of the map. My recommendation is to just hit the Return to Home button on your controller or on the DJI Go4 App and listen for that calm, reassuring voice that will tell you your baby is returning to the Home Point. In just a couple minutes you’ll hear the wonderful sound of rotors right above your head.

How long does it take to get your Part 107 Certification?

After you pass the test you will need to go to the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website and fill out an application for your Remote Airman Certificate. When your application is approved you will get notification on the website and you will be able to download a PDF of a temporary certificate. Sometime after that, you will receive your permanent (for two years, anyhow) card in the mail. It took a little over two weeks for my temporary certificate. It was about three months before I received my permanent card. I have a tutorial on getting your Part 107 that walks you through the process step-by-step. It also includes links to some resources to help you study and some test-taking tips.

I already have a pilot’s license. Do I still need to get a license to fly a drone commercially?

Yes. However, if you are a part 61 pilot certificate holder and have completed a flight review within the past 24 months, you can take an online training course on drones offered at www.faasafety.gov. You will not need to take the aeronautical knowledge test to get your remote pilot certificate.

I am a Realtor. Can I use my drone to shoot photos and video of properties I am selling?

This would be considered a commercial use and would require that you have your Part 107 certification from the FAA. Even though you are not selling the photos or video, they are being used for business purposes.

I crashed. Do I have to tell someone?

Confession is good for the soul, but you only need to report accidents that result in serious injury to a person or cause more than $500 damage to someone’s property. You must file the accident report within 10 days.

I no longer have a drone that I already registered. Do I have to unregister it?

Yes, you do. You can do it online in just a couple minutes. Just go to https://registermyuas.faa.gov, log in to your account, and click the Inventory tab. Find the drone (or UAS as the government calls them) you want to deactivate, click the three dots at the far right, and simply select Cancel. 

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