DRONE TOOLS Safely using autonomous flight modes
RotorDrone|February/ March 2021
In the early days of aviation, as aircraft range and endurance increased, so did the fatigue experienced by pilots. Autopilots were invented in 1912, guiding aircraft to fly straight and level on a compass course and greatly reducing a pilot’s workload. For more than a century, autopilots have improved many aspects of aviation safety, but they have also created new problems.
Gus Calderon

Autopilots, formally known as “flightcontrol systems” and casually called “George,” greatly increase the complexity of aircraft operations. Autopilot designs can differ by manufacturer, and pilots must become familiar with the specific details of each system. A correctly programmed autopilot on a drone reduces the pilot’s workload, allowing the pilot to monitor the flight path and operate the camera. Autopilots have many limitations, however, and the pilot must understand those limitations before flying on auto. Pilots who fly their drones using autonomous modes must understand how the programming works before giving up control to “George.” They must also be ready to immediately regain manual flight control in case of a programming failure. Autopilots on drones, combined with obstacle-avoidance technology, are so advanced that pilots may become complacent. The overuse of an autopilot can lead to the loss of manual flying skills. The result may be a pilot’s inability to regain control once an autopilot is disconnected or its limits are exceeded.

WARNINGS AND LIMITATIONS

Autopilots have many limitations and can malfunction when those limitations are exceeded. For example, autopilots will not function properly above a certain wind speed. The drone pilot must be aware of all the autopilot’s limitations. To ensure safe flight, pilots and autopilots should always complement each other. Before using an autopilot to fly a drone, the pilot must be able to regain manual control of that drone in the event of a problem. The pilot must be proficient at flying in higher winds and challenging conditions such as low light or visibility. It is critical for the pilot to understand all the autonomous features of the drone before attempting to use them. Most important, it is crucial to know how to exit an autonomous flight mode and take manual control of the drone in case of an emergency. This should be practiced often until it becomes second nature.

Autopilot modes may have different features depending upon their manufacturer. These features are often changed when new firmware updates are released. The rate of development is often greater than the manufacturer’s ability to document the changes, turning each user into a test pilot whenever new releases are installed. Since the drone pilot’s attention tends to be focused on the telemetry data and video downlink, a visual observer should always be used when flying on auto.

While several drone manufacturers have autonomous flight modes, this article will explore the more common modes on the DJI Go 4 app, which is compatible with the Phantom 4 and 4 Pro, the Mavic Pro, and the DJI Inspire 2. DJI currently features about a dozen “Intelligent Flight Modes,” but some of these are simply enhancements to manual flying. The following fully autonomous modes require a GPS signal. The drone pilot must have a GPS lock or the autonomous modes won’t work.

RETURN TO HOME

Some pilots may not even realize that the Return to Home feature is an autonomous flight mode. This was the first autonomous flight mode developed when GPS was added to drones. While Return to Home seems like a simple mode, many new advanced features now enhance its operational safety. It is possible, for example, to set the altitude the drone must climb to before returning home to fly over obstacles. There are also autonomous triggers for this mode, such as a low battery or a lost link. Return to Home is the first autonomous mode that drone pilots should become familiar with and practice using often.

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