Drone Basics: How to Stay Oriented with Your Quadcopter

For many new quadcopter pilots, staying oriented at the controls is one of the more challenging aspects of learning to fly. When the yaw is adjusted and the drone rotates in the air, determining the new orientation can be difficult — especially when the drone is a long distance from the pilot.

If you don’t feel like you’re in total control, it can cause you to panic, get frustrated, and fly your drone into precarious situations. Being in control of the quadcopter, regardless of it’s orientation in the air, is an important part of learning how to fly. The following insights and strategies can help.

Understanding yaw

Imagine looking at the quadcopter from above and rotating the the drone in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. This rotation along the vertical axis is known as the “yaw.” For many drones, the yaw is controlled using the left command stick. Pushing the left command stick to the left rotates the drone counterclockwise; pushing the left stick to the right rotates the drone clockwise.

Diagram illustrating how a quadcopter's yaw rotates the drone clockwise and counterclockwise.

Rotating an aircraft along the vertical axis in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction is known as the “yaw.”

 

Most pilots make a deliberate effort to match the drone’s orientation at take off. When the nose of the drone is forward (the camera facing away from the pilot) and the pilot stands directly behind the drone, the drone’s movement during flight mirror the directional inputs of the controller. (In other words, when the pilot pushes the right command stick to the right, the drone flies to the right; when the command stick is pushed left, the drone flies to the left, etc.)

But if the pilot rotates the yaw 180 degrees, the nose of the drone (and the camera) are now facing the pilot. When the pilot pushes the right command stick to the right now, the drone flies to the left; when the command stick is pushed left, the drone flies to the right.

Because the horizontal movements of the drone are relative to the nose of the drone — not the pilot — many beginners get disoriented at the controls.

Staying Oriented With Your Drone

If you do get disoriented during a flight, here are a few strategies that can help you regain control and have a safe and successful flight:

Stay aligned for the duration of the flight.

As mentioned earlier, most pilots make a deliberate effort to match the drone’s orientation at takeoff (the pilot standing directly behind the drone with the nose of the drone facing forward). If something unexpected occurs during takeoff, landing, or at low altitudes, having to pause and think about the controller inputs and the drone’s orientation can make it more challenging to respond and navigate to safety — especially for new pilots.

Once the drone is safely in the air, you can simply continue to fly without adjusting the yaw and remain aligned with the drone’s orientation for the duration of the flight.

Utilize the visual indicators.

Most quadcopters provide visual indicators to help you stay oriented with the drone. Common indicators include:

  • Colored lights: Many drones use red lights on the front arms of the drone and green lights on the back arms. If you adjust the yaw mid-flight and get disoriented, let the drone hover while you look for the colored lights and regain your bearings at the sticks.
  • Icons: Some drones include icons on the controller LED screen or on the mobile device that indicate which way the drone is facing. If the drone is too far away for you to see the colored lights, using the icons and maps can help you get reoriented and bring the drone back to a safer distance.

 

An orange quadcopter drone hovers in a clearing near some trees.

Quadcopters use visual cues, like colored lights on the arms, to help you stay oriented with the drone.

Observe the drone’s movement in the air.

Another way to help you get oriented is by simply observing the drone’s movement in the air. This is particularly useful when the drone is long distances away. The easiest way to implement this strategy is to push the right command stick forward and see which way the drone moves.

  • If the drone moves to the left, push the left stick to the left (which adjusts the yaw counterclockwise). Let up on the left stick when the drone starts flying towards you.
  • If the drone moves to the right, push the left stick to the right (which adjusts the yaw clockwise). Let up on the left stick when the drone starts flying towards you.

Remember, if the drone is moving left, turn left. If the drone is moving right, turn right.

Use the return to home function.

Some of the best drones have one-touch return to home buttons that instruct the drone to automatically fly back to a specified home point. If you become disoriented at the controls, don’t panic, you can always use the return to home function to bring the drone back safely.

The Bottom Line

Remaining oriented at the controls is one of the more challenging aspects of learning how to fly a quadcopter. Rotating the yaw and flying the drone at different orientations is an important part of learning how to master the controls. If you become disoriented during your flight, check the visual indicators or observe the drone’s movements in the air. And before you panic, let off the sticks and use the return to home function to bring your drone back safely.