Drones are becoming easier to fly, more stable, more reliable, and even safer. But how do you keep them in the air and reliable? Here are some easy tips to keep your drones in the air and shooting video.
Binding and Syncing
If you’re using DJI Phantom or Inspire series drones, binding isn’t something you really need to worry about as they come with their own pre-bound transmitters. However, as some of the models within this series are dependent on mobile devices and apps, it’s important to make sure your apps and firmware on the drone are updated to avoid any problems in the field. Here are the steps you should take:
- Before updating:
Do a test flight to make sure your current version(s) work the day before your shoot.
Check message boards to make sure any updates are bug-free. Even DJI has had an update or two that have caused issues. Do NOT update to the latest firmware unless they appear bug-free or unless an update is required in order to fly your drone.
- After updating:
Do a test flight before going out to set to make sure the update works properly. You don’t want to risk your reputation and the safety of people on set with untested software.
If you’re using most other brands of drones you’ll need to bind your controller to the drone when you first get it — or if it loses binding. If your receiver requires a “bind plug” to initiate the binding process, make sure you keep a couple of bind plugs in your gear bag. They’re easy to lose or break, so make sure you keep several just in case.
Always make sure your controller is charged, and do a test flight the day before your shoot to make sure everything is working properly, and your controller connects. When you get to set before your first flight do a range-test if your transmitter has such functionality. Every location has different degrees of interference, so a range test is always important at a new location.
Spare Parts to Keep On-Hand
First and foremost, you should always have spare propellers. Check your props between each flight on set. Even hitting a large bug in just the right way can chip a propeller. These chips and wears can throw the prop out of balance. An un-balanced propeller can cause all kinds of problems from HFV – High Frequency Vibration, which can cause shutter roll, to unnecessary wear on motors. Wear on motors due to unbalanced props can cause motors to burn out, or even seize up. Replace a prop with even the tiniest chip.
Even hitting a large bug in just the right way can chip a propeller.
If you can, bring a spare drone. When doing outdoor flights, I use a DJI S900. But I try to get to set a bit early and test-fly the camera moves with a Phantom 2. Also, if something goes wrong with the S900, the shoot doesn’t have to be postponed. A spare drone is handier than you might think. Remember Clarence’s Rule: It’s better to have something and not need it, than to need something and not have it.
Bring a complete set of tools for your drone. All the hex wrenches that fit your drone’s screws, needle-nosed pliers, etc. If any screws loosen due to vibration, you should be prepared to re-tighten them. Don’t take any chances.
Know Your Repairs
What Repairs Should You Know How to Do? In short — everything. Really, you should learn every component of your drone, what it does, and how it works. The best drone pilots are the ones that know how to build them from scratch — even if they fly turnkey systems. The more you know about your drone, the more you can understand its capabilities and limitations. That will help you fly more within its safety envelope.
That being said, the bare minimum you should know is how to replace propellers, replace parts with stress fractures or crash cracks, and how to reconnect any components that are loosening due to vibration. We still advise you to educate yourself on exactly how these things are built though. It’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s a lot like connecting a component stereo system.
Directors aren’t fans of waiting on crew. To make sure you can fly on a moment’s notice, you need to make sure you have enough batteries to keep flying for the duration of the shoot. That being said, make sure after every flight you give your drone a few minutes to cool its motors and speed controllers. These things get hot, and if they aren’t given a chance to cool, they can fail.
How many batteries are enough? Let’s take the Phantom 2 & 3 as an example. Realistically, you can count on about 12 minutes of safe flying on a battery. They take about 45 minutes to charge (each), and with a 5-minute cool down cycle between flights, the magic number is 3 batteries and 2 chargers. A 4th is still advisable, though, just in case. This way, while one battery is being used, 2 are charging. By the time you cycle through all 3 batteries, the first battery is recharged and ready to go.
Also, make sure you have a power-inverter in your car for more rural shoots, so you can charge batteries in your car while you shoot. And always keep a spare set of batteries for your transmitter on hand.
It all sounds pretty much like common sense, right? You’d be surprised how easy it is to overlook these simple steps to stay flying. The golden rule is to stay methodical, safety-conscious, and to take your time. If you keep your attention to detail with maintaining your equipment, it’ll treat you right, and you’ll get great shots — reliably!
Ty Audronis is a professional drone pilot, author of the currently highest rated book on building multicopters, and a member of the Society of Aerial Cinematography’s Advisory Committee. He’s flown for major networks, film and advertisements.