This article is written for all levels of pilots to follow as a guideline in your flying progression. With the many choices that UAV pilots have today for vehicle configurations, flight management and equipment it is important to remember that your vehicle can be dangerous and expensive if not respected and maintained. The importance of respecting regulations and the airspace system for UAV’s is the same as any aircraft, this may seem like a giant leap for RC pilots, to believe they are as important as a 747, but you are. There are many risks of flying within our complex national airspace system and operating “unmonitored” is an important responsibility to maintain no matter how you slice it, no pun intended. UAV operators that are not aware of local airspace procedures and abatement policies are a risk to our industry.  Youtube Warriors and GoPro Cowboys are what will ruin the fun for everyone; if you know someone that fits into these categories please do the responsible thing. This article does not represent the views of anyone other than myself. Enough of my soapbox speech, the politics and red tape in our industry will work themselves out; we just want to fly our vehicles, here is how to get started.


Progression as defined is

 “a movement or development toward a destination or a more advanced state, especially gradually or in stages.” Merriam-Webster

It is not defined as quickly advancing and inadvertently missing concepts and foundational learning to gain a goal. At one point in our flying we were all rookies or beginners let us always keep that in mind as we progress. Training for success from day one is the best way to progress, starting with a goal that is attainable and then envisioning the steps it will take to get to that point. Your goal should not be to just get to the end result, which is usually some money or fame, but rather enjoy the journey and as a by-product of that journey understand how you got there. Learn to, appreciate, respect, the innovation, dedication and intelligence of others it took to get to you to where you are now. Learning from mistakes is another journey…. for fools. We will all make mistakes, but stating you are going to crash or that you will probably crash a few times is a bad way of thinking to begin with, you are setting yourself up for failure. Retrain your brain for success and think to yourself “if I crash, I will…” and then proceed to move through the emergency checklist procedures you have set for yourself. This way of tuning yourself for a prepared mental state shall keep one fit for all occurrences and situations.  

Types of Systems

There are many different types of vehicle systems to choose from today, please chose a vehicle within your given abilities that will allow for progression, however keep within your skill level. Automation doesn’t give you the right to cut corners on learning, what happens if something fails? Autonomous systems that have position hold can fail and leave the user in an undesired state of mind, it is important not to panic during these brief moments. Systems that are large take longer to slow down and control, this can be unforgiving to the untrained flyer in various forms such as legal, financial and emotional.


Simulators are a great resource and no one should think they are above polishing up their skills. Simulators provide the very best form of progression within UAV. Simulators allow you to fly other models and get a sense of the flight characteristics specific to that vehicle without buying the vehicle. They also allow you to understand where your limits are, what maneuvers you can control safely and how to complete certain procedures. Simulators can help you learn how to recover in unusual attitudes and prepare you for the visual aspects of knowing where the front of your vehicle is. The many types of optical illusions that will be displayed as your vehicles leaves you will be hard to interpret, the simulator can prepare you for these difficulties safely and without risk to your wallet.

The Importance of Flying a Basic System

This is the center of this article; flying a basic system is the best way for people to progress in UAV besides using a simulator. Basic systems are flown manually and give the operator the best sense of flying, maneuvers and operations. Basic systems let the pilot control every aspect of the flight manually without the assistance of automation. Automated systems however give the pilot a false sense of control in that they are not really giving accurate input to the control system. The automation dampens the movement of the control inputs, the vehicle flies to pre set destinations programmed into a ground station. Automation is great and in no way am I saying someone is superior by flying a basic system. The appreciation of the basic system is the essence of the article, flying basic systems teaches the student many things about the flight characteristics and prepares the operator to fly bigger systems manually in the event of a system failure.

Pre Assembled Vehicles

Pre assembled vehicles cut down the learning curve and provides a false sense of security that relies heavily on the safe operation of all on board systems. Without the use of flying a basic system, pilots gain an inflated sense of control and lack the progressive steps to fully understanding the vehicle. There is not an easy way to demonstrate this unless we compare it to aviation and the progression of licensed pilots. As a pilot I remember the many hours of training, learning and experience it took just to receive my first basic license of private pilot. Pilots rarely if ever train in a multi-engine aircraft in the beginning of the training, this is for a number of reasons such as costs, complexity and access to complex aircraft. It is however possible for someone with no experience to learn to fly a multi-engine aircraft, but most would say you are wasting your money and not really learning to fly, rather you are a monkey at the controls, preprogrammed to act accordingly, but without any thought to their actions. This type of progression is a badge of honor for pilots. We remember the shaky trainer aircraft we flew successfully and the many hours we spent learning about each aircraft. Learn to fly a basic system, people will respect you more and you will gain a deep understanding of piloting and vehicles.

Build Your Own

Build your own at least to save on the costs if not to learn every aspect of the vehicle. By building your own vehicles you learn what each part’s function and action are as part of the whole picture. You will also learn an appreciation to fixing your gear, unless you want to pay someone else to fix your vehicle. By building your own UAV you receive a world of knowledge as to how and when to replace parts, what upgrades to attach and which vehicle to upgrade to. Another benefit of building your own vehicle is the hands on time you will spend assembling the parts, by gaining this understanding you may inadvertently gain insight as to how to improve your vehicle and become an innovator, not just a follower of the latest and greatest technology. 

Be Professional

Become a professional not a UAV “bro” “slacker” or “hero” pilot, people want to feel like they have a connection with someone who is a professional when the services become available. In other countries this is already a possibility. Operators should once again take a page from the aviation community and represent yourself as a professional. This means dress to impress, use appropriate language, and educate yourself and others on UAV. I knew a banner tow pilot who wore a tie everyday to work, even though there was no dress code and most pilots showed up in flip flops and shorts to fly planes. When the owner of a regional jet operation stepped in the hanger looking for new recruits for his company, (this is 1980) he specifically asked to see the boy with the tie on. This pilot now flies g5’s all over the world because of that chance meeting, he had already impressed the community with his sense of professionalism, I think we should all learn from this example.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

This phrase from Ice Cube says everything about our industry, if we want to protect our rights, we should act safely and responsibly. Use a checklist, read my other article Play It Safe, UAV Operations Checklist For Beginners, Enthusiasts, and Professionals. Checklists are a way for people to have a resource of the procedures for the safe operation of the aircraft right in front of them, like following a recipe to cook the operator can refer to the checklist during any phase of flight. Everyone should also have an emergency procedures checklist so that in the event of a failure the operator can get the vehicle safely to the ground and hopefully not damage any person place of thing. A preflight checklist is also another good idea to inspect the vehicle before you fly for cracks and loose equipment.


In closing I would like to mention that this article is purely written from my opinion and is not the expressed concern of my work place Advanced Aerials, nor is it by any way a legal binding document. Advanced Aerials is a contributor to my learning experience within UAV and a great resource for the history of UAVs, pioneering gimbal mounted cameras and advanced vehicle design. This was written to protect others from harm and to preserve our industry of professionals and hobbyists.

 Please follow me on Twitter @learntoflyva

Questions, comments, amendments and concerns please email me rthompson242@gmail.com 


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  • Rob,

    "I wonder what does the flyer who cant work on their vehicle do?" - sadly, they rely on so called "professional experts" that undertake repairs on their behalf and charge for their so called "professional service'.  Result is that they add unnecessary weight, throw the CoG well outside the original design limitations and make what they perceive to be improvements over the manufactures design team expertise. 


    The owner takes his "fixed" device and attemtps to fly - only to crash (again).


    With that, he "cans" RC modelling saying it's a waste of good moeny and resources and denegrate the hobby.

    What you said at the start.  There were only two people I know that learnt to fly without instruction.  Their names were Wilber and Orville ;-)


    For the rest of us, we have the luxury of having people who are will to help. 

  • Hi Theo,

    I think you just reinforced my point !

    " AC is nowhere near safe enough for example to risk manned flight or flying over crowds or flying really heavy aircraft at all. And that's regardless of automated failsafe systems. Therefore the fallback is what it has always been with aircraft of any size: Fly it manually when something fails."

    Being able to manually fly is not the control for the above risks. The control is teaching people that ACs are not appropriate for flying anywhere near people or really heavy vehicles. Eliminate the risk through appropriate education. People should learn and make mistakes with AC vehicles away from people and on small AC vehicles before they progress to larger ones. Being able to fly manually is not a control against an out of control AC - assuming that your AC will fail at some point and ensuring that such failure does not lead to injury is the control.

    "It's also the simple truth that you can't fly what you can't see. Any pretensions of safety in any commonly accepted sense of the word during out-of-sight-range autonomous flights are simply lies."

    Again, being able to fly manually is not a control for LOVO (loss of visual orientation). There are two controls here; 1) Obviously - don't get yourself in that situation - education. 2) Have your failsafes set up so that it comes home. Again, it is about teaching people the basics of AC, not RC, which is the key.

  • More great well thought out comments. I fully agree with the above statements:

    Ausdroid - Ill add those to the checklist and this article soon.

    Harry- thx for the comment great points, keep on flying!!

    Nick- I wonder what does the flyer who cant work on their vehicle do? I am unsure as to everyone, but those kind of "repairs" can add up and send them right out of the community. We do have to share so I know we are in agreement, what are some ways to set goals, or barriers to "students"? It seems that people should understand maintenance and repairs to a minimal degree. This is a good topic I might address this in my next article. Good luck on your H4.

    Theo- I agree on the distance weight requirements for beginners, keeping it in sight for students is another key requirement. If they lose the craft that is a tough lesson, even worse if it breaks something or someone. I think of fix wing as a great way to begin FPV, but I am a pilot what do I know. People would probably crucify me for suggesting going to a fixed wing then back to a quad, lol. Great topics here to discuss later, thx.

    I am looking for new topics to address the community, especially in the areas of beginners or students. Any suggestions please email or reply here, take care, safe skies!

  • Hi Rob (& other forum members),

    There are fliers and there a builders.

    As much as I agree with the bulk of statements you made, trying to entice an "all thumbs" person to build a refined machine when they find folding paper aeroplanes difficult is a big ask.

    I have been involved with aero-modelling a lo-o-ong time. Building free-flight models from sheets of balsawood and competing in State Championships helped hone my skills in building and an appreciation in "tuning" to ensure consistent operation.

    Also having gone through GA training and owning my own full-size A/c, your sentiments on safety are spot on. Whether large of small, an un-controlled aircraft mixing it with bodily parts equates to disaster. Not good for the souls involved not the hobby.

    As mentioned previously, there are those that can build and those that can't. Being able to build and fly is a great gift. There are also those who can't build - but boy, do they have great hand-eye co-ordination and fantastic spatial orientation!

    There simply must be room for all for the hobby to progress.

    For me, besides the free-flight, R/C pattern ships, helicopters and now quads, my re-entry into the hobby has discovered my current specialist knowledge somewhat lacking. To get re-started, I bought myself a "consumer" quad to see what it is all about. I was hooked.

    I am now building a H4 based on a kitted quad assembly from HK. The power-train and electronics I have largely researched for myself (a great way to learn if you are patient). But, before buying/committing to anything, I asked for some expert advice from several people. When that advice was consistent, I took the next step of committing financially.

    I'm please to say that at this stage, I have built the frame and today, the electronics arrives. Now to work out a layout that will optimize balancing.

    As a newbie, I’m here to learn and in due course, pass on those learn-ings to others.

    Here’s to safe flying and thanks again for the great article.


  • I'm flying a tricopter I built and I've spent lots of time repairing it.  I found every single weak spot the hard way.  Right now it has a MultiWii on it but it has flown the Ardupilot.  I've tried all kinds of code too and even some bad attempts of my own.  It's a good way to learn all kinds of stuff about what makes them tick and what keeps them ticking.. Buying and flying out of the box is nice but could have some big surprises that the "student" would already know and respect.

  • Rob,

    Really great article, full of wisdom. Yes, the sky is becoming full of off-the-shelf models controlled by users who have no grounding in the complexity and beauty of the technology. It reminds me of jetskis in as much as unlike traditional boaties who grow up with boats and work their way up to bigger and faster vehicles, jetski riders just go to the shop and buy the biggest and fastest machines they can get their hands on and get out on the water with no regards for the rules or anyone else's enjoyment. Your advice to keep it basic is sage. Though, I would offer (given this is a forum devoted to "drones") that the focus of experienced advice given to learners might be targeted at systems that include an automation element. There is a wealth of knowledge at any RC club and on any RC forum as to the basics of learning to fly RC (Remote Control), I fear the problem we have is that there is probably not a great deal of information on learning to fly in an augmented control (AC) environment. It is the safe operation of vehicles with automatic control systems that I feel is the the issue. I have searched the internet for detailed and well thought out checklists for autonomous aircraft, both in terms of setup and pre-flight. There is really nothing there. I have developed my own lists to ensure that I don't miss anything. How is a learner to know how to be safe. A single missed item (waiting for GPS lock. Setting and confirming home position, receiver/throttle failsafe, setting home altitude, etc) can result in a fly away. Taking off, checking battery voltage, current draw, control inputs are all critical to the safe operation of drones.While it is critical that pilots understand the basics of their craft and how to fly it manually, I fear it is even more critical that they understand the basics of safe automated flight and how to set the vehicles up so that the additional safety features are functional and active. 

  • Hi Rob,

    I really think your article is excellent and will be mining it for concepts to include in my own introductory page.

    I also think you are wise to avoid controversial topics, this like many others is a very volatile site, I should pay more attention to your wisdom in that regard myself.

    And as far as this site (DIYDrones) is concerned, your approach is perfectly reasonable.

    My site is definitely more oriented towards the general public and as such has the unenviable task of trying to minimize the damage.

    And there is nothing either one of us can say that will make any difference to those who are sure they already know it all.

    I think that we are in for a tumultuous next few years.

    BTW I personally think that a frame or frame ARF kit like the DJI Flamewheel ARF kit is a great way for those with limited mechanical ability to get started building one of their own, both DIYDrones wiki and my site have construction articles for the Flamewheel ARF and for a Hoverthings FLIP Sport Frame up build.

    From scratch is complicated and not for everybody, even here.

    I'm building my first scratch built now, a CF tube based H - Dead Cat with 14" props and KDE 515KV motors.

    It does however make me think you asked about a topic, how about a start to finish article on a small simple scratch built CF tube X quad copter.

    You know hobby king has a very interesting set of square 10mm tube modular components for multicopter construction.

    Best Regards,


  • Gary,

    Thank you so much for you insightful post!! It is hard to create a good written article for all people to agree on, however I try to dance as much as possible around the sensitive areas that get people arguing or getting into debates. Yes there are many difficulties in building a vehicle, this was a great way to keep people out of our community, much like your son in law. I totally agree no way to stop the pre assembled vehicles form taking over a large share of the users for a time being. Entry level vehicles like Ar-Drone, Ladybug, AirHog Toys or Blade Qx are great ways to build confidence and skills. The best part of building your own is to find out how hard it really is to assemble and tune your machines. I am looking for new topics that will interest new users, any suggestions for topics? Great reply once again, safe skies! 

  • Great article but don't forget tat RTF can also be a good way to see how to go about building your own. It also gives the user advance to fly a well setup machine and have something to aim for if they choose to continue on to building their own system,

    I agree with most of what had been said but with Gary's comments added. I think education not regulation is the key. Those that are genuinely interested in the UAV scene will progress and the weekend warrior pilots will eventually disappear. If not all together they will certainly thin out. Once the hype has worn off and people realise there is a lot more to flying RC than just buying an off the shelf system.

  • Hi Rob,

    I agree very much with your primary message - start with a basic system.

    I also think that those who have sufficient interest and capability to build their own definitely benefit from doing so.

    However, I think the build your own mandate will leave over 90 percent of the people getting into quadcopters this year totally out of the picture.

    The fact is that consumer quadcopters are gaining popularity and selling like hot cakes and many of them are going to people who have never flown anything more airworthy than a folded paper airplane before.

    Telling them to build their own ignores the reality that it simply will never happen.

    Of course we can choose to ignore "them" and distinguish ourselves as us and them but that isn't going to work very well when there are a lot more of them than us.

    I personally advocate starting with a small, intrinsically safe consumer RTF toy quadcopter and learning how to fly with that, actually learning how to fly well with that.

    Several things are gained.

    At least when they get something potentially dangerous they will have sufficient skill to fly it and maybe some gained knowledge of the hazards as well.

    it will actually save them a lot of time and money because the little RTF quads are cheap and very resiliant (nearly unbreakable actually.

    And they aren't going to hurt themselves, anybody else or even property in the process.

    It also gives them the opportunity to see if this is something they want to pursue with more time, effort and money.

    Better to have them get out now before dropping their Phantom on somebodies head.

    Even after this introduction, the choice of whether to pursue prebuilt or mostly prebuilt solutions is an individual one.

    Some people, just like with modern RTF or ARF RC airplanes will just want to fly and maybe take pictures with their copters.

    There is still certainly much that needs to be learned to do that well.

    And they may be as mechanically inclined or capable as my son in law - in which case I truly don't want to be in the vicinity of a copter they have built.

    Also, it is no small feat to build these things from scratch, if your designing it as well, you really need to know a lot of stuff before your going to put anything together that actually works well.

    It's kind of like requiring your kid to be able to build his car from ma random pile of parts before you will let him drive.

    You - me - we can do that, its the other 99.9% I'm concerned about.

    Might check out a few pages at my dronesarefun.com or quadcoptersarefun.com websites if your interested.

    This one for rank beginners: http://quadcoptersarefun.com/ADroneOfYourOwn.html

    And this one for learning how to fly: http://quadcoptersarefun.com/HowToFlyAQuadcopter.html

    Best Regards,


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