Pre-Flight Checklist: What to do before you fly

So you just bought your first quadcopter, and you are so excited to fly it around that you feel like a kid who just bought his first video game. This feeling of getting something new to play with is great, but when talking about RC models and quadcopters, uncle Ben was right all along: with great powers comes great responsibilities.

Many people might see drones as toys or cute flying machines, however they are much more than that. With sharp reinforced nylon blades spinning at thousands of RPM, lithium-polymer batteries that can explode if mishandled, and dozens of regulations to follow, informed drone users can attest it is not as simple as it looks.

So how do you not forget all the rules and procedures and prevent bad things from happening every time you fly?

Before and after each flight, it is highly recommended that you go through a checklist. Yes, a simple checklist might separate you from big headaches, a broken quadcopter and even legal liability. In this checklist, you will want to verify the state of the drone, batteries, propellers, camera, check if there is anyone around you or if you can fly in the area, etc.

The thing with checklists is that you should make them as rituals, instead of seeing them as waste of time. Before each flight, you should verify each item carefully and you should not see this as a burden, but as part of maintaining good safety standards for you and for those around you. A good motto said by Adam Savage (the one from the Mithbusters) in his Youtube channel Tested is: “Go slow, don’t be an idiot”.

If you google around, you can find some resources telling you what to include in your pre-flight checklist. But, as always, I’m here to make your life easier, so I have compiled the most important items for you.

Before even leaving your home, make sure it is legal to fly a quadcopter in the area you are going. In the US there are many regulations you should follow, and I won’t go one by one in this article, but bear in mind a few examples: all National Parks are no-fly zones, around an airport is a no-fly zone, and close to a military base is a no-fly zone. You can also check in this Mapbox map for forbidden areas. However, always double check with local authorities, since maps can be outdated or incorrect.

The first thing is to check your batteries. It may seem obvious, but forgetting to charge/change batteries is rather common and, for drones without a battery charge indicator, it can be disastrous. Then, verify if nothing is fractured: you don’t want your frame to break mid-air. Make sure things are fastened: batteries, camera, gimbal, electronics. And of course, check the propellers: are they tightened, locked, and not broken? Can all rotors spin freely?

Cool, now that you checked the physical integrity of the quadcopter, you should start powering things up. Start with the camera, then extend antennae (if applicable), and check if you didn’t accidentally put the transmitter control in full thrust. Ok, so now you can turn the quadcopter on (but don’t start the rotors yet!). If you will be flying with FPV, now is the time to check if the video and gimbal (if applicable) are OK. Also, calibrate the compass if you have one in your drone.

Finally, you are almost set to go. Your last and biggest concern before flying should always be with other people around you: is it safe to take off? Is anyone too close? Am I taking off too close to any animal or trees? Remember that those propellers can easily cut through skin, so if you don’t feel comfortable taking off, then don’t. Also, always warn others that you will take off – simply shouting “clear!” might suffice – this will make others alert, so in case you lose control they will be able to protect themselves.

If everything is OK until now, you can take off.

Despite all the checks you did before, it’s always good practice to hover close to the ground for a few seconds (20-30) and look for any abnormalities and loosen things.

Now go, go have fun…

Pre-flight checklist:

  • Check area regulations
  • Batteries fully charged
  • Quadcopter structure and landing gear OK
  • Everything securely fastened
  • Propellers tightened, locked and not damaged
  • All rotors spin freely
  • Camera on
  • Antennae up/extended
  • Transmitter turned on
  • All transmitter switches and controls in correct position
  • Clear Frequency chosen
  • Quadcopter on
  • If flying FPV, check video and gimbal
  • If applicable, calibrate the compass
  • Area clear of people, animals, trees
  • Notify people you will take off soon: Clear!
  • After taking off, hover for 20-30s, check for problems

Attention: this is a simple checklist to help you increase safety when flying your quadcopter, this is not a complete guide nor legal advice, the responsibility when flying is still yours.

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