This post is all about the headless mode on drones – a flight mode that can save new pilots a lot of confusion and even crashes during flights. If you are a new pilot and haven’t had your share of painful drone crashes yet, you might get easily confused with your drone orientation in the air. That’ is because most drones have symmetrical designs, i-e, they don’t have a head or tail (or left or right), so it’s quite difficult to keep track of the drone orientation mid-air. Drone engineers have come up with a neat solution to this problem, and it is called Drone Headless Mode.
What is headless mode on a drone?
So, what is headless mode on a drone? Headless mode is a software flight feature on a drone that keeps the drone’s orientation constant with respect to the pilot. In headless mode, the drone’s FORWARD is always in front of the pilot, LEFT is on the pilot’s left, and RIGHT is on the pilot’s right irrespective of which way the drone is pointing. This makes flying extremely easy for new pilots.
Let’s explain this in more detail.
Every drone has a “head.” It’s the direction the drone moves in when you push the FORWARD stick on your transmitter. For some drones, the “head” is the same side on which the camera is mounted. In other drones, the head is marked with LEDs or different colors of propellers or landing gears. All this is to indicate the correct direction in which the drone will move when a corresponding stick on the transmitter is pushed.
Everything works great until you take off and go a few meters up in the air. After that, you are unable to see any head on your drone. Especially if you are flying a symmetric drone like the DJI Phantom 4, it’s quite hard to see which side is the ‘head’ and which side is the tail. Things get more complicated when you rotate your drone to take pictures in a different direction and totally lose your sense of orientation. In such a case, when you press the LEFT stick on your transmitter, your drone will zip forward (or in any other arbitrary direction). This is a nightmare for new pilots.
Simple. LOCK THE HEAD.
Engineers came up with this neat solution to lock the ‘head’ of the drone with the help of the onboard Gyroscope. This way, when you activate the ‘headless’ mode on your transmitter, you lock your drone orientation. After this, no matter how much you rotate your drone, the head will always be in front of you, the drone’s RIGHT will always be on your right, and its LEFT will always be on your left.
In headless mode, when you press LEFT stick, the drone will move left. The same goes for all other directions – FORWARD, BACKWARD & RIGHT.
how does drone headless mode work?
Now that we understand what is Headless Mode on a drone, let’s explore the technical side of it and see how it works and what sensors it uses to ‘lock’ its position.
Headless mode on a drone works by taking inputs from the onboard Gyroscope, magnetometer, and accelerometer. Gyro, magnetometer, and accelerometers are MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) devices that help the drone determine its position relative to a reference point. In our case, the reference point is the drone’s initial position at the time of turning on the headless mode.
Once the onboard computer locks the drone’s reference position, it ‘remembers’ which side was the head and which side was the tail. During the flight, when the drone rotates and changes its initial orientation with respect to the pilot, the gyroscope and accelerometer measures the change in position compared to the reference position and provide that input to the computer, which can then accurately calculate the ‘head’ side of the drone.
This way, the computer keeps track of the ‘head’ at all times irrespective of the drone’s orientation, and when you push the FORWARD stick on your transmitter, the drone will go in the FORWARD direction with respect to you – the pilot.
Other names for drone headless mode
Headless mode is a feature that is present in most modern drones. It used to come only in high-end drones because of its dependence on expensive sensors, but nowadays, even toy category drones are equipped with headless mode. However, different manufacturers might brand it with slightly different names to make distinction.
In DJI drones, headless mode is marketed as “Home Lock,” which you can activate when the drone is at least 5 meters away from your home position, and you don’t know which way it is oriented. You can follow the below steps to activate the Home Lock on Phantom 3. The rest of the models follow more or less the same steps.
Similar to DJI, in Yuneec drones, the Headless mode is often referred to as “Smart Mode” which is not as descriptive as the Headless mode or Home Lock but it’s essentially the same thing.
Other terms may also include “Care-Free” mode or “Head-Free” mode and they are all the same thing.
Why do drones have headless mode? – Pros
Ok so we discussed what a headless mode is and how it works. But why do we need it anyway? Why do drones have headless mode?
Most people fly drones for one of the two purposes. a) Enjoy the thrill of flying. b) Take great aerial photos and videos. If you are constantly worrying about which way your drone is oriented during flight, you might not enjoy your flight. You would constantly be pushing the sticks left, right to know which way the drone is responding so that you can fly it in the correct direction. It’s just too much hassle and mental math, which you don’t want. Of course, this gets easier when you gain experience, but for newbies, this is a lot of confusion.
Here are the pros or benefits of operating your drone in headless mode:
- You can stop worrying about your drone orientation and just focus on enjoying your flight or photography
- Your drone doesn’t need to be in the visible range to operate. Just push the stick back and the drone will come to you.
- Flying in close quarters, you can avoid accidentally crashing it into a wall.
- Headless mode is very intuitive and novice pilot friendly.
Cons of flying a drone in headless mode
I usually compare the headless mode vs. normal mode to auto gear shift vs. stick shift on a vehicle. Some people consider the stick shift drivers the only “real drivers,” and anyone would drive an auto gear shift vehicle. You may or may not agree, but the headless mode is quite similar to this.
The headless mode enables almost everyone to fly a drone without any prior training or experience. But it has its cons.
Headless mode is meant to be for beginners, but if you rely too much on it, you might find it difficult to transition to the normal mode when you gain experience. It will become that sweet comfort zone that you would never want to leave.
But why would I want to leave headless mode if it is so great? You might ask.
Here is WHY.
When you gain more experience, you would want to switch to more sophisticated drones that can go much higher and much further to take full advantage of your third-eye in the air. In such a case, the headless mode is quite useless because you will be flying mostly using either your FPV screen or FPV goggles.
The headless mode on drones does not work with FPV mode.
While in FPV mode, your “head” will always be fixed in the direction of the camera, and that fixes your LEFT, RIGHT, and BACK. Operating in headless mode while looking at your FPV feed will cause a lot of confusion even for experienced flyers.
So, it is a good idea to just use the headless mode as your ‘training wheels,’ and once you know how to fly and control your drone more intuitively, you should start practicing normal modes as well. Just like you don’t want to ride your bicycle with training wheels all your life, you don’t want to fly your drone in headless mode all the time as well.
Another con of headless mode is that it makes you a really bad FPV racing pilot. Yes, I mean it. If you want to get into FPV racing at some point, headless mode is your No. 1 obstacle. Get out of it as soon as you have control over your drone and try flying in normal mode.
How to know if my drone has headless mode?
Most drones nowadays come with headless modes. The manufacturer might use different marketing terms to brand the feature as discussed earlier but it is essentially the same thing.
Since it is one of the highly advertised features especially on medium-range drones, chances are that it is written somewhere on your packing (in words on Trump) BIGLY. You can’t miss it.
The specifications or marketing material of the specific model will also boast about having ‘headless mode’ (see the Holly Stone HS110D marketing material on Amazon)
If you still can’t find it anywhere on your package, the most certain place to find it (if it is in there) is the user manual. The user manual covers all flight modes that are pre-programmed in the drone, and headless mode is one of them. Download the user manual for your specific drone model and search for the term ‘headless mode’ or ‘carefree mode’ similar, and you will find it along with specific instructions on how to activate the headless mode.
Best drones with headless mode
Now that you fully understand what a headless mode is and why and when we need it, let’s look at some of the famous drone models that enable you to fly headlessly.
|XFUNY MJX Bugs 2||Yes|
|Holy Stone HS110D||Yes|
|Holy Stone HS720E||Yes|
|DJI Phantom 4||Yes (called Home Lock)|
|DJI Mavic Mini||Yes (called Home Lock)|
|DJI Ryze Tello||Yes|
|Yuneec Typhoon H3||Yes (called Smart Mode)|
Drone Headless Mode – Conclusion
In summary, a Headless mode is a useful tool in most drones that can help you get through the initial phase of learning how to fly. It will help you overcome the fear and anxiety of crashing your drone due to confusion caused by the relative orientation of the drone to you.
Once you get comfortable with your controller’s joysticks and drone’s behavior, you should switch to regular mode to become a more versatile pilot. If you want to get into FPV racing drones at some point, remember to learn to fly without headless mode. Till then, the headless mode is your best friend.