Ask Drone Girl: what’s wrong with headless mode and why is it cheating?

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about beginner flight modes. 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.

(Phantom users might see headless mode referred to in the app as Homelock, while Yuneec refers to it as Safe mode).

But here’s why you shouldn’t fly headless mode.

The most blaring issue is FPV (first person view) mode, meaning 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.

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.

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.


5 thoughts on “Ask Drone Girl: what’s wrong with headless mode and why is it cheating?”

  1. Hey Sally, thanks for the article, it was really helpful. Being very new to drones, I did not understand the difference between headless and traditional mode. I didnt even really know there were different modes, until today. Also loved your remake of flying nose-in = a la selfie mode! Ive been practicing my drone selfie skills quite a bit! lol.

  2. Hmm… I just picked up a nano quadcopter and outside in the daylight where you can’t see the l.e.d’s it’s super difficult to see front from back once it gets more than say 20ft away.. in that case, messing around in the garden I’ve been choosing headless, because it’s simple and fun.

    Sure I can fly it “normally” but visually, for other people perhaps, it looks more impressive letting the machine do some of the work?

  3. You need to give priority to the users purpose for their quadcopter. I want to fly my little Hubsan 107D+ above me and do some 360 video of the campground I’m in staying at. A selfie going away or coming in. Even though I can see the front and back of the drone, moving it towards me or away while yawing is so much easier in headless. This and flying around in a field is the extent of my need. I’d maybe like to get good enuf to FPV it through the house someday. Then I’ll need to master “normal”.

  4. Don’t know much about drones but I’d like to get my own and learn how to fly it. Just wanna ask for recommendations on which brands and models a newbie should try out. And how much do I need to prepare for it? My main interest for getting one would be to be able to take good aerial shots. I love photography and there are just some views you need machines to help you with.

  5. My thoughts about headless mode are:
    1. I have been flying for 4 months now and have yet to learn how to fly without headless. I have yet to find a website that explains how to train your mind to somehow adjust to the constant changes in control behavior. If the UAV is facing you, then you must move the stick left to go right, forward to move it towards you, etc. It gets worse when flying at an angle 45 degrees relative to your position. How can anyone learn to do this?
    2. The argument against it because of FPV is not valid. When using FPV, the camera always points forward which means headless is not needed.
    3. In my own experience, wind and not magnetometer inaccuracy is the biggest issue. The wind changes the aircraft’s orientation but because the movement is slow, the accelerometer does not detect it. I find that when flying my U818A in a bit of wind, I sometimes must cycle headless on/off to resync the UAV with the transmitter.

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