5 things I learned from my first time flying a drone

March 22, 2022

Recently, I had my first drone flying experience and wanted to share the top lessons I learned for any other beginners out there hoping to use drones to make maps too.

As a GIS professional, I’ve always wanted to learn how to fly a drone. I finally got the chance when we went on our annual Soar.Earth hackathon and our team used drones to map some of the places we’ve visited.

With the help of my colleague, who is a trained drone pilot, here are the top 5 lessons I learnt along the way:
1. Plan, Plan, Plan

When I found out we were going to fly a mission, I was ready to head straight out to the field. But, to my surprise, most of the drone mapping mission is planned before we even step outside. In the field, the drone is on autopilot, who knew?

We used DroneDeploy to plan our mission. The planning process involves selecting and generating the flight path of the drone, and tells you the estimated flight time and how many batteries are needed for the mission.

This is an important step to know exactly what we need for the mission, and allows us to prepare any extra batteries and gear we will need, as well as helping us select the best time of day to avoid strong winds. Planning our mission meant everyone involved knew exactly what was going to happen and how it would happen.
2. Nothing goes exactly to plan…

Even after our careful planning, there were some hiccups we had to overcome. We noticed on the morning of our mission that the batteries we brought on the trip were drained, so we spent a lot of time waiting for them to charge, resulting in us not visiting the site at the time we planned.

When we eventually got to site, we discovered that the elevation of our starting point was higher than we expected. We had to open the DroneDeploy app and amend the mission details at the last minute to a higher elevation in order to fly safely and ensure the drone didn’t crash into a tree! However, the tradeoff for flying at a higher altitude was that the drone needed to combat heavier winds, so it spent more time in flight and used up more battery power than planned.

Despite these setbacks, we managed to execute the missions - so it didn’t completely ruin our initial planning. However, it did extend the length of the missions, so I would definitely factor that in for next time - and check the batteries the night before!
3. You need to be flexible

With these unexpected events, I learned that the best way to go about a drone mission  is to prepare for any scenario and be flexible when there is an issue.

The change of expected elevation is a common issue that most drone pilots face and the only way you know for sure is when you're actually on site. It’s always recommended to allocate plenty of extra mission time to account for this.

Even when the drone is airborne and on autopilot, a drone pilot might still need to intervene mid-mission to ensure the drone returns back safely. The drone pilot may need to make an executive decision on the best time and best place for the drone to start returning to the launch location, especially when flying manually.

Going into a mission with a flexible mindset and ready to take control will make the experience smoother and calmer for everyone involved.
4. Never take your eyes off your drone

The golden rule for every drone pilot is to never take your eyes off the drone.

This rule is a no-brainer if you're flying manually to take single images. But when it comes to taking a series of images to generate a map, it's easy to fall back on autopilot and just let the drone do its thing. However, as we learned, flight missions almost never go exactly to plan, so it’s important that your drone is in sight so you can react quickly if issues arise.

5. Be in the moment

Some of the locations we picked had spectacular views and an equally rich history. Of course, the main reason we went to these locations was to map them. But, it was equally exciting to take in the sights and enjoy nature on the way.
My specific area of interest was Castle Rock. I’ve previously mapped the surrounding area using Sentinel imagery when a bushfire broke out in the region. The maps I made highlighted the burn scars of the area, and I wanted to see the extent of the damage in person.

It was surreal to see the aftermath in person, especially a month after the fires had occurred. I got to see the extent of the damage and observe the resilience of Australian wildlife. The scenes around our takeoff site were beautiful and I even got to watch a few boats sail past us. It was a highlight of the mission and I would encourage other drone pilots to really take in all of their surroundings when they’re out flying.

All in all, it was a great learning experience and opened a whole new method of remote sensing for me. It was very rewarding drawing out a polygon in the planning stage and seeing the map come to life from all the drone captures. It took me back to my university field trips and reignited my passion for field work.

The map itself turned out amazing. Drones capture at a higher resolution than some aerial and satellite imagery, since they’re closer to ground, which meant you could clearly see the parts of the landscape that were affected by fire. It was fascinating to see and compare to my earlier satellite maps.
All in all, the mission was a great success and you can view the map I made on Soar.Earth.
If you’re a passionate drone mapper, you can also create a free Soar.Earth account to show off your work, and even post it to our Discord drones channel.
This blog was written by:

Diana Rodzi

Diana is Soar.Earth’s local map aficionado, connecting with people in the field who share the same interest and passion in mapping and cartography. She's a big foodie, so she's always trying out the hottest new food joint or experimenting with new recipes at home.

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