This article was updated on October 18th, 2020
In this introduction article, I will cover all of the components of a drone and how they work together. I will also delve into essential apps you are going to want available on your smartphone or internet enabled tablet.
It’s important to note that in this article I will be referring to your drone aircraft as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), quadcopter or as an aerial cam. 🙂 These are all the same thing, your drone.
Table of Contents
Official Flight Apps
Essential Drone Pilot Apps
1. UAV Forecast
Other Things to Consider
Virtual Test Flight
Preparing for Your First Flight
Other Apps to Consider
1. Sun Surveyor
Where Are My Photos and Videos?
DJI drones support both Android and iOS based devices.
While many drones like the DJI Mavic 2 Pro look similar from multiple angles, there is a front and back to the quadcopter. It’s important that you remember so you’re able to know which direction the drone will move, forward or backwards.
Your drone is comprised of:
- Aircraft Body
– Anti-Collision Sensors
– MicroSD Card Slot
- LiPo Intelligent Flight Battery
- Remote Controller and Smartphone/Tablet
- OR Smart Controller
The drone gimbal is what actively stabilizes your camera video and photos. It allows you to film buttery smooth video and aid in keeping the video level to the horizon.
It’s important to not put extra tension on the gimbal as the motor was only intended to handle the included attached camera. Be gentle!
TIP: Whatever drone you go with should include a gimbal guard which you will want to attach whenever your drone is idle or in your hard case.
This is function which differs greatly between which drones you’re comparing. The higher-end drones such as the Mavic 2 series, Phantom 4 Pro series, and Inspire 2 series are loaded with many sensors to help prevent you from flying your drone into something. Is it perfect? No, however it has saved me in several situations and the aircraft slammed on the brakes to avoid a collision.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s an important requirement for way-point navigation and many other intelligent flight modes that are available with your aircraft.
It’s important to allow enough time for your drone to connect to as many GPS satellites as possible before you take off and to raise the drone slowly so it’s able to capture a photo of the location you took off from so it’s able to return to this location easier later if you decide to use the return-to-home function.
MicroSD Card Slot
You are not only going to want a card that can write at optimal speeds for 2.7K/4K video but fast enough to download them at the end of each of your sessions so you’re not waiting 60+ minutes for the files to transfer over onto your computer.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro/Zoom
A UHS-I Speed Grade 3 rating microSD card is required.
Supports a microSD with capacity of up to 128 GB.
Check out my memory card guide for Mavic 2 over here!
DJI Mavic Air 2
A UHS-I Speed Grade 3 rating microSD card is required.
Supports a microSD with capacity of up to 256 GB
Check out my memory card guide for Mavic Air 2 over here!
DJI Mavic Mini
You would think that the Mavic Mini would demand less compared to Mavic Air 2 or Mavic 2 but still requires a fairly fast UHS-I Speed Class 3 or above memory card to film reliable 2.7K resolution video.
Check out my memory card guide for Mavic Mini over here!
LiPo Intelligent Flight Battery
I recommend having multiple batteries for your flight and it doesn’t hurt to have a car charger so you’re able to charge up another battery if you want to extend your flight time. You can possibly get away with less batteries with the car charger or could save you in a situation where you forget to juice up a battery.
Depending on which drone you choose to purchase, you might be looking at a low battery charge if you haven’t flown for a week or longer and you might need to recharge the battery. This is an auto-discharging function of the intelligent batteries and is for safety and longevity of the lithium polymer batteries.
To prevent the battery from swelling, it automatically discharges to below 65% of total power when it is idle for more than 10 days. It takes around 2 days to discharge the battery to 65%. It is usual to feel moderate heat being emitted from the battery during the discharge process.
It is important to fully charge a new battery because they can be shipped in a deactivated state and you may not even be able to check the status of the battery until you do so. Press on the button on the top of the battery once to see how charged the battery is.
Perform Regular Maintenance Checks
TIP: Be sure to check your battery frequently for any damage or bulging. If it appears swollen, this indicates your battery is damaged and must be replaced. Do not fly with a battery in this condition!
Drone propellers are often made of durable plastic, which is pretty astounding for what they are capable of doing!
There are commonly marks near where you attach your drone propellers which indicate which prop to attach. You can buy prop guards which can be especially helpful if you’re just getting started or are flying near trees or other objects. I recommend flying somewhere with a large open area without people and with as few as possible objects or challenging terrain.
It’s important to keep an eye on your props before each flight and make sure there aren’t any chips missing from the blades or excessive corrosion accumulating. You never want to fly with a damaged or bent propeller.
Controller OR Smart Controller
For the best results, keep your remote controller’s antennas facing up for maximum reception.
Traditional Remote Controller
- Android Device
- iOS Device
A WiFi connection is used to communicate between the controller and UAV drone. So keep in mind if you’re in a dense metro area you might have difficulty flying due to the excessive amount of wireless equipment in these areas.
In the traditional setup with the remote controller + device, you will be connecting your device up to your drone remote controller with a USB cable. Most newer drones come with connectors for USB Type-C (Android), Lightning Connector (iOS) and Standard Micro-USB (Older Android Devices) which are long enough for most phones. You will likely need a longer cord if you want to hook up your remote controller up to a 10-inch tablet.
DJI included a smart controller with their Phantom 4 Pro+ model which integrates a device with their GO app and the controller together into one device. No cords! They have continued this trend after the launch of the Mavic 2 Pro & Zoom by offering what they call a Smart Controller which has a lot of the same advantages as what was included in the P4P+ with faster setup and freedom to have your smart phone for other purposes like requesting flight approval or checking the weather, which I really prefer over relying on one device.
The Smart Controller has an HDMI port if you want to output your display to a larger 4K external display. Digital screen is optimized for viewing in direct sun light.
The DJI Smart Controller is compatible with the follow drones:
Mavic 2 Zoom, Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Enterprise Series, Phantom 4 Pro V2.0.
Official Flight Apps:
DJI GO 4 OR DJI Fly
You want to become familiar with all of the information on this screen so we are well aware when it’s time to bring the aerial craft back to us. You don’t want to push the boundaries of flying on a low battery power and risk your investment with the ocean/lake, trees or heaven forbid a swamp! Been there, done that.
Most drones have a return to home function/button or automatically return to where you sent it into the sky. If you reach this message on the screen of your device, don’t ignore it or interrupt it unless you can see the drone is clear for landing in it’s current location. Pretty much all of the drones by DJI have this functionality and I wasn’t able to find one with it!
If you do find that you need to use this functionality, be sure your drone is high enough up that while it is traveling back to the starting location that it doesn’t encounter any trees or any other obstacles.
DJI GO 4
This is the primary app for many of the newer DJI UAV/Drones.
While connected to your aircraft you can playback your photos and footage, while in the air or before your flight. There is live streaming to YouTube, Facebook, Weibo or Custom RTMP, however I have found you need an excellent internet connection in order for it to work well or at all.
iOS App Store: Download
Google Play Store: Download
GO 4 Compatible Drones:
Mavic 1/2 Series
Mavic Air 2 and many others.
This app was created for simpler and more intuitive experience for new drone pilots. While you can do much of the same tasks with DJI Fly, it is more intended for easier operation of your Mavic Mini or Mavic Air 2.
Fly does include an editing suite, with the functionality to export or remove footage directly from within the new app. Also, there is support for switching between portrait and landscape orientation.
Nearby Fly Spots
They now include a nifty new Nearby Fly Spots feature which I will need to spend more time testing away from home because presently there aren’t any showing up for the Greater Madison area. If you look up Shanghai you end up with several photo spots.
DJI Fly Compatible Drones:
Mavic Air 2
It’s possible with more enhancements and refinement, Fly could become DJI GO 5, but the time being it is the only option for Mavic Mini and a choice for Mavic Air 2 owners.
Other Offical DJI Flight Apps
Matrice series – DJI Pilot app
Tello series — Tello app
There are other third-party flight apps but for the timing being we will focus on the official flight apps created by DJI Global, DJI GO 4 & DJI Fly.
Find Some Wide Open Spaces
You’ll want to look around the greater area of where you live and see if there are any local parks that allow and/or don’t strongly discourage drone activities. You can also try to fly during non-peak times to insure the area is empty or very limited in terms of people.
Once you have found what you think to be a suitable location for flying, check the follow apps:
Essential Drone Pilot Apps
- UAV Forecast for DJI Quadcopter & UAV Drone Pilots (for drone weather, possibly no fly zones and nearby airports)
- Kittyhawk: Enterprise Drone Flight Operations (helpful for requesting authorization to fly in an area, made available for recreational and commercial based drone pilots)
- AirMap for Drones (this is a good app for checking an area)
- B4UFLY Mobile App (for recreational only)
1. UAV Forecast
This is one of the best weather apps I have been able to find for UAV pilots. If you go into the settings you can also adjust the thresholds for unsafe flying if you feel they are too aggressive for your abilities.
Sats Locked: I want to share that I have often gotten the message “Not Good To Fly” due to the Sats Locked field being too low (below the threshold). But, I have no trouble gathering enough GPS satellites when I actually went to fly my Mavic drone. So, keep that in mind and don’t be too concerned with this field.
New Feature: The developer of this app has recently updated it to include a “through the day” bar feature where you can see whether the weather is good for flying or not. It’s a nice update to see the day in a quicker fashion for flight safety. Thank you, Matthew Lloyd!
The information from this app can also be accessed from their website, UAV Forecast.
Kittyhawk was created in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for recreational and commercial part 107 drone pilots to help aid in the pilot knowing whether it’s safe to fly your drone. It does not allow you to obtain airspace authorizations to fly in controlled airspace, which are only available through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).
- A clear “status” indicator that informs the drone pilot whether it is safe to fly at their location or not. (For example, it shows flying in the Special Flight Rules Area around the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is prohibited.)
- Useful, educational, interactive maps with filtering options.
- Info about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks, military training routes and temporary flight restrictions.
- The ability to check whether it is safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin.
- Links to other FAA drone resources and regulatory information.
I recommend having AirMap for Drones available as well because it is an FAA-approved provider for LAANC in the United States and also provides comparable authorization in other countries.
- Imagine constant airspace data, including official aeronautical information, regulations, dynamic limitations, climate, and ground impediments, on an simple digital map. With Contextual Airspace, AirMap displays only the airspace data and rules that are relevant to your central mission.
- View legitimate airspace warnings, notifications, and regulations pertaining to your mission, aircraft, and certification.
- Log in to search your intended flight location and select the set of regulations that applies to your aircraft, operator certificate and flight scenario.
- Request: Get Near-Instant Approval to Fly in Controlled Traffic Regions (CTRs)
By using both Kittyhawk and AirMap, you will be able to fly in more places safely and by following their guidance you will be a better pilot for it.
Be sure to maintain line of sight with your drone so that you can see it at all times.
Things to avoid: Airports, people, animals, buildings, no fly zones (NFZ), overhead power lines, crowded areas found during public events to name a few things.
This is one of the simpler apps mentioned in this app list for pilots which lets you know if you’re in a safe area to fly your drone.
Other Apps to Consider
These are some other helpful apps and programs for your drone endeavors.
- Sun Surveyor (Sun & Moon) (good for seeing where the sun is going to rise and set)
Sun Surveyor (Sun & Moon)
- View sunlight and shade throughout the year for any location.
- Sneak peak of solstice & equinox paths and view horizon obstructions.
- Golden hour & blue hour times, moon phases, super moons, milky way center viability, among other information.
- App has the ability to share locations, screenshots and data with friends, colleagues or your clients.
Virtual Test Flight
I am excited to share that there multiple ways to connect your Mavic drone to your personal computer and perform a test flight without even taking off the ground with your new drone.
I believe this is the easiest way to get a simulator running to practice the controls of your Mavic drone. Download DJI Assistant 2 For Mavic for your Windows or Mac based computer.
DJI Assistant 2 For Mavic
You will be connecting your Mavic drone up to your computer with the included USB-C cable and powering on your aircraft. Load up the application on your Windows or Mac and you will be prompted with a screen showing your drone model. Why would you want this software? Well, you can update the firmware on your aircraft or smart controller, export logs, calibrate your aircraft anti-collision sensors or run the lite simulator and practice your aerial skills.
Mavic 2 Enterprise Series
DJI Smart Controller
Mavic Air 2
DJI Flight Simulator
Unfortunately, Mavic Mini and Mavic Air 2 aren’t on the list of supported drones but you’re in luck if you operate many of their other drones. If you somehow managed to get your controller to work with these drones, please write a comment at the bottom of this post and let us know!
You will need a computer with at least an Intel G4560 processor, i5-6400 for recommended or an i7-7700 for optimal results. This shouldn’t be too difficult for most computers because these processors are over 3-years old.
They list more information on the software recommendations on the product page.
Preparing for Your First Flight
- Inspect the physical condition of the drone. Look for signs of wear, or cracks in the propellers.
- Study the rules and regulations for the area you plan to fly in. See Essential Drone Pilot Apps.
- Check that your batteries are fully-charged and have adequate power for flight. You can do this easily by pressing the button on the top of the intelligent battery once and it will display the battery charge status.
- Check that your controller and drone are properly connected;
- Verify that your smart or remote controller and the aircraft are connected properly by checking the official fly app you’re using, GO 4 or Fly and make sure you can see out of the camera and see other information regarding your craft.
- Keep a close attention on the changing weather conditions in your greater flight area.
- Look up at your take off/landing area and ensure you have a clear open view of the sky. Also, check the ground, are your props free to rotate without hitting tall grass or other objects?
- Double check your camera settings. Are you able to see how the camera? You may need to make an adjustment to the exposure settings in order to see from your drone’s camera.
- MicroSD memory error? Be sure you have a memory card installed to take photos or video.
- Let anyone know close by that you are about to take off with your aircraft.
- Keep an eye on your battery and the status of your drone at all times during your flight.
I know many people, myself included, don’t love reading the manufacture manual, but I imagine if you bought any of the drones mentioned in this blog guide, you would be sad to lose or damage your new found creative expression. It’s important to start out slow.
Remote Controller: Controls
Left Stick: Pushing this joystick up causes the drone to fly up while pushing it down causes the drone to descend. Alternatively, pushing this joystick to the left and right rotates the drone to the left and right, respectively.
Right Stick: This stick controls the drone’s heading or movement. Pushing this stick up, down, left, and right causes the drone to move forward, backward, left, and right, respectively.
Please note: With DJI GO 4 you are able to to switch these controls based on what’s most comfortable.
Mode Switch: These controls are usually located on the right hand side of the remote controller and offer a way to switch between three different modes which change the way your drone operates (in order from controller):
- Sport Mode (S)
- Positioning Flight Mode (P) (Default Mode)
- Tripod Mode (T)
You may need to go into the DJI GO 4 or DJI Fly, settings in order to enable other modes besides Positioning Flight Mode, however this is the best mode to get started flying drones and practice aerial controls.
In (P) mode, your Mavic drone will use as many available GPS signals as possible to ensure a strong connection is made with the remote controller and the aircraft.
Remote Controller: Dedicated Camera Buttons
Most drones will have a dedicated photo and/or video button to allow you to begin filming or take a picture. You will be able to tilt or pan the camera, as well. It’s a good idea to take a look at what each button does before taking off.
Where Are My Photos and Videos?
On a vast majority of the drones, your content is stored on the drone itself on a MicroSD memory card. One exception is the DJI Mavic 2 Pro & Zoom which both come with 8GB of internal storage for storing photos/videos, plus MicroSD storage. If you can’t find your media it’s probably stored inside the internal memory and you will want to connect your aircraft directly to your computer in order to retrieve your media.
Retrieving Your Content
Open up the memory card cover, lightly press on your MicroSD card and remove it from your drone. I recommend unless you have a MicroSD card reader to insert your memory card into something like a SD Adapter for microSD by Samsung or SanDisk. This way you are less likely to lose your card and now you can insert the whole adapter + card into most standard card readers!
Pano media: X:/DCIM/PANORAMA
Hyperlapse media: X:/DCIM/HYPERLAPSE
In the example above we have one folder for our photo and videos, however if you reach the file limit in the first folder, there may be 101MEDIA, 102MEDIA, etc and beyond as you reach the file count limit for each folder. If you can’t find a particular file, check the other folders.
3-2-1 Backup Rule
Ask yourself, could I live with losing these files? The premise behind the 3-2-1 backup rule is to have a total of three copies of your files (your main computer and 2 backup copies) on two different disks with one copy off-site, just in case for disaster recovery.
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Photo by William Bayreuther on Unsplash.
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Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash
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