Drone Flight Controls - dummies

Drone Flight Controls

By Mark LaFay

Drones can’t just fly themselves. Well, actually, they can. But the whole point of flying your drone is actually flying it! Controlling a drone can happen in a number of ways. First and foremost, you must understand how flight controls work.

At the basic level, your drone is equipped with a receiver. The receiver receives information that tells it what to do. You tell your drone what to do using a transmitter. Since the dawn of remote control flight, receivers and transmitters have communicated using radio frequencies (RF).

Not much has changed with remote controls. What has changed, is the numerous additional communication methods built into consumer drones today:

  • GPS provides accurate position data for your drone. It also allows for some pretty slick auto pilot features.

  • Wi-Fi provides the ability to transmit heavy amounts of data to and from the drone within a specific control radius.

  • Bluetooth provides another method for transmitting information to and from the drone.

  • 900Mhz/433Mhz provides longer range communication at a slower data rate.

The additional communication methods have opened the door to some pretty awesome drone flying features. Some drones have thrown out remote control with handheld transmitters and replaced them with smartphone and tablet controls. Flight controls are a major differentiator between drones and a very important feature to take into consideration when choosing a drone!

RC Transmitters

Most drones come with an RC transmitter. RC controls are very basic and typically only offer directional control. RC transmitters provide control of your drone for a much greater distance than a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection.

Most drones will come with an RC transmitter designed specifically for them, although RC transmitters can be interchangeable, so you can use a third party RC transmitter if you want. If you are going to use a third-party RC transmitter, make sure you verify that it is compatible with your drone or the matching receiver can be installed in your drone.

Your drone should come with documentation to specify which transmitters are compatible with it. If you can’t find the information in your operating manual or online, then you may want to hold off on purchasing a transmitter. An incompatible transmitter will only be useful as a paper weight, or contemporary art.

Drones are typically offered in two different package types: ready-to-fly means all you need to fly are included in the box and there is next to no assembly required; bind-and-fly means you need to set your drone up to work with your own remote control handset.

Several RC transmitters. [Credit: Courtesy of Tucker Krajewski]
Credit: Courtesy of Tucker Krajewski
Several RC transmitters.

Mobile Apps

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have made it possible for drone manufacturers to create device controls that run on smartphone or tablet. Not just a smartphone version of your RC transmitter, but high-tech controls. Several drone manufactures have created apps that give you advanced positioning, first person video controls, programmable flight routes, and more.

Some drones come with both an RC transmitter controller and a mobile application for viewing you’re the drone’s position using GPS, flight stats like speed, battery life, and fly time.

A sample drone control applications. [Credit: Courtesy of Tucker Krajewski]
Credit: Courtesy of Tucker Krajewski
A sample drone control applications.

Advanced flight modes

Drone manufacturers have come up with several useful flight modes and autopilots to make flying with a purpose a little bit easier. Advanced flight modes can also help you recover a drone that has gone rogue.

  • Set it and forget it: Program a flight path for your drone into a mobile or tablet app and then watch it go. (Be careful where you tell your drone to fly. Drones go exactly where you tell them to go, even if a building is in the way!)

  • Auto return home: GPS locking your drone before you start flying will make it possible for your drone to return home if it loses data connection or flies out of range of your controller.

  • Follow mode: Using an app or other controller makes it possible for your drone to follow you at a specified altitude and distance.