A Beginner’s Guide to How to Fly a Drone by a Beginner (with some specific instructions for LaTrax’s Alias drone)

Overview

Towards the end of last year I walked into my local Hobby People shop to find a drone. I walked out with the LaTrax Alias drone (they said it was awesome and they had a sale and I’m a sucker for a sale and a great piece of equipment).

In this article I cover some things that I learned on how to start and how to fly the Alias. I goofed up and mis-remembered the drone arming procedures many times (choosing to just “do it” rather than check YouTube). Luckily the fine folks at Hobby People helped me out every time (shout out to Mike and Richard). While there are tons of resources about drone flying, these are just some things I learned that may be helpful to someone who wants to just get going with a drone.

Alias What?

In case you wondering – no I’m not talking about Jennifer Garner’s character from Alias the TV show. I’m talking about the Alias quad-copter from LaTrax.

Alias What?

Support from LaTrax

LaTrax has a great deal of support for the Alias:

In spite of the videos and PDFs I had a heck of a time connecting the remote to the Alias (which had more to do with me rather than LaTrax’s instructions). Luckily the Hobby People folks were very (very) patient with me. This is one of the reasons why buying a drone from a local bricks-and-mortar shop makes sense, besides the fact that the there is very little pricing when compared to online.

How to Arm the Alias

‘Arming’ a drone refers to the process of connecting the remote to the drone. The Alias (like most drones) begins in a disarmed state. In other words, it doesn’t connect to the remote without specific user interaction. Otherwise, you might accidentally tap the remote and the drone would go flying haphazardly into your neighbor’s Bob yard and then Bob would claim it’s his drone and…well anyway.

The video explaining arming

LaTrax’s drone arming video is very useful in this respect. It’s good to start with this video. However, there is a subtlety in how you click on the throttle stick (which I’ll explain in the next step).

The video explaining arming

The subtlety of arming using the throttle stick

So as the video shows you pull down the throttle stick and then you “quickly press and release the throttle stick”. My problem was that I would press and hold the throttle stick and then this would cause the numbers on the remote to flash and go into its option setting mode. Additionally, this mode can cause the drone/remote to be unbound (the very opposite of what I was trying to do).

So what the heck does “quickly press and release” mean? Think of the volume buttons on your iPhone (or iPad). When you press the button to raise the volume by just one bar (so you’re quickly pressing the button on/off) – that’s the exact same action with the throttle stick. Another analogy – a letter on a keyboard – think of how you press a letter (quickly) on/off with no hesitations – this is the same thing.

The subtlety of arming using the throttle stick

What happens if you end up in the options mode

When I over-pressed the throttle stick (and it would go into its option setting mode), I would typically end up pressing anything else that I could find on the remote. This is definitely the wrong thing to do (but it seems really like the right thing when you’re following the “just fly already” mentality). If you end up in the options mode, then its best to turn off the remote and turn it back on and try again (flight stick down and then a quick push/release).

A note about binding/unbinding

If you press the throttle stick incorrectly enough times your drone may become unbound. So lets quickly cover this:

“Binding” is the process of making the controller (i.e. your remote) “talk” to the drone. Typically the drone (like the Alias) is bound to the remote but you cannot control the drone with the remote unless the drone is “armed” (per above steps). “Re-binding” is the process of re-connecting the drone and the remote so that they can talk to each other. Every drone will have it’s own re-binding procedure.

In the case of the Alias the rebinding procedure is as follows:

  1. Hold both throttle and flight stick at the same time until you hear a beeping sound and see options on the LCD screen of the remote.
  2. Tap the throttle stick to go through the different selection options until you see the ‘reset’ option (i.e. the word ‘reset’ on the LCD screen).
  3. Then you hold both sticks to selected and the remote/drone will reset and re-bind.

Note: I will have a link here to a video where Richard from the Hobby People will show how to do this (this is a todo on my side).

Because you’re not sensitive you need a hula hoop (i.e. how to practice flying a drone)

Why you’re not sensitive

OK – so I don’t know if you’re really sensitive/empathic/understand but when it comes to drone flying that doesn’t matter. What matters is your ability to use the remote in a way that doesn’t cause your drone to crash or fly away in a haphazard way. Initially, when you try to use the remote to control your control of the throttle and flight sticks will be out-of-whack.

Let me give you a gas/brake pedal analogy (the usual disclaimer applies – do not try this: at home, in your garage, on the road, etc…). Let’s say you’ve had the unfortunate circumstance of hurting your right foot (like fracturing your foot while walking off a curb because you were reading a for-sale sales flyer…but I digress). And you have to drive somewhere. So you get into your car and you have the brilliant thought “no problem – I can use my left foot for the gas/brake pedal”. So you put your car in drive (in a safe situation) and as the car begins to drift forward, you attempt to gently press the brake with your left foot. So what happens?

What happens is that you will stomp that brake pedal in the same way that Godzilla crushes cars with his feet. Your brain will tell your left foot to gently/slowly press the pedal but your left foot will be completely mis-synchronized with that request. Your left foot will Mr. Hyde to your right foot’s Dr. Jekyll. At this point you’ll realize that the sensitivity of your left foot is vastly different from your right foot and that it’s time to call Uber or Lyft.

This sort of brain/body sensitivity is what I’m referring to in terms of the drone’s remote control usage.

Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/dDTryr

Why you're not sensitive

What you should NOT do first time with your drone

LaTrax has a video called “Episode 1 Making your First Flight”. In it they place the Alias in an open area (a good idea) and then they just start to fly it around (their flight expert John is flying it around…sheesh – what’s the point of having an expert fly the dang thing when a beginner is watching the video?). John flies the Alias perfectly because he has the sensitivity to do so but mere beginner mortals do not have this ability yet.

Note: the arming and positioning portions of the video are spot-on so the video is worth watching.

What you should NOT do first time with your drone

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 1 – Get a Hula Hoop

First step is get a hula hoop. A small one is perfect but a large one is good too.

Note 1: Mike from the Hobby People shop told me about this approach to learning.

Note 2: A cat is not necessary for this step.

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/5d1dxu

What you should do (in my opinion) - Step 1 - Get a Hula Hoop

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 2 – Find an enclosed structure and put the hula hoop down

Find an enclosed structure. Maybe a small room in a home or even a garage. The key of course is that you don’t want anything breakable (just in case your drone or better said your control of the drone goes crazy).

Put the hula hoop in the middle of the room and put the drone in the middle of the hula hoop. Then step away.

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 3 – Practice Hovering – Phase 1

The first step is to practice hovering. You want to practice hovering the drone at about 3 to 5 feet off the ground. The reason for this height is that you want to prevent the rotor updraft from causing stability issues (i.e. drone rotors push lots of air downards and hovering below 3 feet causes you to ‘fight’ the drone to keep it stable at a hovering position).

The practice steps:

  1. Drone in center of hula hoop.
  2. Blue LED pointing towards you and red/colored rotors away from you (in the case of the Alias).
  3. Use the throttle stick to lift the drone 5 feet off the ground.
  4. Use the throttle stick to bring the drone back into the middle of the hula hoop (you should not be using the flight stick at all if possible).
  5. Keep practicing steps 3 and 4.

Note: If the drone drifts while hovering and you’re not touching the flight stick, then you’ll need to bring it to a Hobby People type of shop for adjustment.

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 4 – Practice Hovering – Phase 2

Once you feel comfortable with hovering you’re ready for the next exciting phase: step away further from the drone (a few feet back) and practice the same hovering steps again (from phase 1).

You may be wondering why you need to practice hovering again. The issue you’re addressing is one of perception and control. The further you are from the drone (both on a horizontal and vertical axis) the more different your perception and therefore the more different your control. What you’re practicing is getting a feel for controlling the drone from a distance and that’s very important when you fly it at much higher heights than 5 feet.

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 5 – Practice the drone version of touch-and-go

At this point you’ll be practicing a drone version of touch-and-go. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take off from the center of the hola-hoop.
  2. Go to the right and touch down outside of the hula hoop.
  3. Hover back to 5 feet and fly back to the center of the hula hoop.
  4. Touch back down in the center of the hula hoop.
  5. Do steps 1 to 4 by going to the left.
  6. Do steps 1 to 4 by going to the back.
  7. Do steps 1 to 4 by going forward (without hitting yourself 🙂 ).

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 6

There is no step 6 and there is no spoon. If you’ve passed your drone sensitivity training then you’re ready for the great outdoors.

If you have an Alias then check out LaTrax’s YouTube channel for how to do flips, rolls and other awesome things.

Have fun and good luck!

Some additional information regarding drone training for kids

There are lots of (crappy) drones for kids. They’re cute and small and they breakdown really quickly. My wife bought one of these tiny disasters for our son during a trip and one of the motors quit fairly early and then the drone was useless and the boy was very frustrated.

I asked the Hobby People people on the best way to teach a pre-schooler to fly a drone. Richard had suggested that I get prop guards for the Alias. More importantly, he indicated that he could adjust the remote control (takes about an hour) so that the Alias control reactions are much slower. In this way, my pre-schooler can learn to fly the drone without destroying himself, the cat, the house, and the drone. He offered to do this adjustment (no charge) and I will take him up on it in the near future (have I said how much I like local hobby shops such as the Hobby People?).

If you’re interested in a post about pre-schooler drone training/flying – let me know via @eli4d.

Conclusion

While your impulse may be to fly that drone as soon as you unwrap the box, it is best to practice just a little bit.

That’s it. That’s the very little I know about drones. Hopefully you found it useful.

I welcome feedback at @eli4d.

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