Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about beginner flight modes, and how headless mode fits in. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.
It seems most experienced pilots say we should learn to fly using standard controls, not headless mode. However, I can’t find any reason for that advice, except that headless is “cheating.” What do you recommend and why?
Why hello, Jim!
This is an excellent question — and you’re absolutely right. I don’t let my own students fly using headless mode! I’ll explain why, but first, let me explain what headless mode is.
In a traditional drone mode, if you take off with the drone facing forward, then immediately yaw (or turn) your drone 90 degrees to the left, and then pitch your drone forward, the drone will actually go to your left. Logical, right?
In headless mode, the orientation of your drone goes out the window — and the algorithms do the work. If you take off with the drone facing forward, then immediately yaw your drone 90 degrees to the left, and then pitch your drone forward, the drone will still go forward. It’s absolute vs. relative.
But here’s why you shouldn’t fly headless mode.
Why flying in headless mode is risky, especially for new pilots
Here are some of the risks of flying drones in headless mode:
- It can be disorienting for the pilot. In headless mode, the pilot cannot rely on the drone’s orientation to help them keep track of its position. This can make it difficult to fly the drone safely, especially in complex environments.
- It can lead to crashes. Because the drone is not limited by its own orientation, it can easily fly into obstacles or other objects if it doesn’t also have 360-degree obstacle avoidance.
Here are a few other reasons to reconsider flying in headless mode.
Headless mode doesn’t translate to FPV flying
Then there’s the difference between headless mode and FPV (first person view) mode. When flying FPV, you wear goggles or look at a screen that shows you exactly what the drone’s camera sees. FPV quite simply won’t work in headless mode, meaning if your future plans involve drone racing, or even using FPV to get better images or for commercial applications like search and rescue/inspections, don’t expect to use headless mode.
FPV is becoming increasingly popular, especially as DJI continues to lean into the manufacture of its own FPV drones, such as the DJI Avata. The Avata came out in August 2022 as an extension of the DJI FPV, which came out in 2021. Both have been popular for indoor drone flights, experimental drone racing and yes, even as photography drones. But don’t get comfortable flying in headless mode if you eventually intend to graduate to one of these other drones.
Related read: DJI Avata vs DJI FPV: which is better?
Any potentially technical issues can make it difficult to return home safely
Then, you get into technology concerns. As one Redditor outpointed, some drones rely on the magnetometer for headless mode, which means flying near metal objects like power lines can throw off the magnetometer.
If you’ve only learned to fly in headless mode, and it stops working, would you be able to navigate back in the event it fails?
Many liken flying in headless vs. traditional mode to driving a car in automatic vs. manual. You can most certainly drive in automatic. But will you see any NASCAR racers winning in automatic transmission? No. If you’ve learned in headless mode, it’s going to be a lot harder to transition to traditional mode, which is much more difficult to fly in, rather than just fighting to learn traditional mode in the beginning and switching to headless mode as you please once you have experience.
When flying drones in headless mode makes sense
That being said, I’m not a total headless-mode hater.
If I’m doing a high-stakes shot and need to fly nose-in (meaning the drone’s camera is facing me…a la “selfie mode”) then I will fly in headless mode. I, and most drone pilots I presume, would find it easier to fly this way than to have to essentially fly the reverse/nose-in way.
Headless mode can also be helpful if your drone flies to far away and you lose track of which way is forward and backward. Flipping to headless and driving the drone in reverse would easily bring it back to you. Then again, if that was the case, you could always just watch the telemetry reading on your controller to see if the drone is flying away from you.