pre-flight drone checklist

Pre-flight drone checklist: 4 things to do before every drone flight (that no one tells you)

Ever gone out on a drone flight and taken amazing shots, only to return home, pop your memory card in your computer and find out the card was corrupted? Yeah, me too — and it can easily happen without giving “reformat memory card” a spot on your drone checklist.

Flying drones is the best, but I’m the first to admit there are many pitfalls: little things can go wrong unexpectedly, and there’s surprisingly a lot you’ll have to remember to have a smooth flight.

Of course, you always have to check the batteries are charged, and make sure you’ve packed all your gear. But here’s the thing: there’s a lot more you need to remember beyond that — and they’re things no one tells you.

These learnings often come from experience — having done a lot of trial and error — and alas, having learned from past mistakes. The user manual has a lot of good stuff — read it. But don’t stop there.

That’s why I’ve made a pre-flight drone checklist that covers the things the user manual won’t tell you. Before every drone flight, here are the 4 things I do that you wouldn’t necessarily think of:

drone checklist microfiber cloth clean lens screen
A small microfiber cloth is useful for cleaning off your camera lens before every drone flight — but it’s handy for other electronics, too.

1. Clean off your lens: Ever gotten a great shot, only to find that it’s blocked by a thump print? Yeah, me too. Carry a microfiber cloth in your drone case. Before each flight, do a quick brush over your lens. Beyond just ensuring the camera lens is clear of smudges, also wipe down any sensors. Smudges on sensors can interfere with their detection abilities, making it all the more likely that your drone might otherwise have trouble detecting objects as promised, or might have trouble with auto-landings.

You can buy a 6-pack of microfiber clothes for less than $10 on Amazon. They’re handy not just for drones, but for keeping your TV screens, smartphones and even eyeglasses in pristine condition. Stock up, as they’re typically much cheaper to buy in bulk.

drone checklist memory card SD card microSD reformat Skydio 2
The microSD card slot on the Skydio 2 is tucked underneath the battery compartment.

2. Format your SD card: Formatting your SD card is a process that instructs your camera to set up a new file management system to store images and videos.

By reformatting your memory card before every flight rather than just deleting the past footage that you’ve already transferred to your computer or hard drive, you’re essentially allowing your camera to write information more efficiently to the card — and cutting back on the odds that footage gets incorrectly stored — and potentially corrupted.

Think about it like you’re driving. If there are 8 roads in a city, you can certainly get to your intended destination. But if there’s only 1 road, it’s a lot likely you’ll get lost or detoured. You want your memory card to be a city with 1 road.

Just know that formatting your SD card (or any sort of drive) will clear all of its files. So only do this if you’ve already transferred your footage from your last drone flight to a computer or hard drive elsewhere for backup. If you accidentally deleted footage, you may be able to access old footage via image-recovery software, but don’t count on it.

You can usually reformat your memory card within the drone. To reformat your memory card directly via the DJI Go 4 app:

  1. Open the DJI Go 4 app and go to the camera settings.
  2. Scroll to the tab that says “Format SD Card”. As long as you’ve saved your past footage, tap it, and you’re ready for your next flight.
Your pre-flight drone checklist: 4 things to do before every drone flight (that no one tells you) DJI Mavic Mini Drone Girl
Before every drone flight, check for software or firmware updates so you don’t end up in Hawaii, unable to fly your drone, because the connection is too weak to download the update.

3. Check for software and firmware updates: The hardware on your drone will obviously never change since you purchased it (unless you make your own modifications), but the software and firmware changes. Yes, drone companies are constantly working to improve the product you bought — even after they’ve taken your money.

Software and firmware updates are often minor, addressing small bugs. But they can sometimes be major, like a major geofencing update DJI implemented to prevent drones from flying in unauthorized airspace. Other updates just mean a more delightful user experience, like a major DJI Spark update that introduced a new gesture feature to start and stop video recording, an enhanced “QuickShot” video feature and a mode for 180-degree photo shooting.

Software and firmware updates are usually a good thing in improving your drone flying experience, but they can be annoying, particularly in some (luckily, rare but mandatory) updates where your drone cannot take off without going through the update.

Most updates tend to take between 5-15 minutes and require your app to be updated to the latest version. From there, you’ll have to download and install the latest firmware on your drone and remote controller.

Check the night or morning before your flight for any updates. You don’t want to be out in the field with a weak connection, and be forced to download a major update. Do it on your Wifi connection at home or in your office.

The FAA’s Know Before You Fly website can show you whether or not you can fly your drone in a specific area.

4. Ensure that you’re authorized to fly in that airspace (during the exact time of the flight): You may have flown in a particular area a million times, and suddenly, one day, you get an alert and your drone won’t take off — because you’re in unauthorized airspace. There’s likely a Temporary Flight Restriction in effect — and it can happen in situations such as major public events like sporting events or parades, or even in cases like natural disasters.

If you’re flying a DJI drone, you’ll encounter software called the GEO System, which can tell you when it’s safe to fly. It also means the DJI software prohibits you from flying in off-limits zones (you can get around it by taking an extra step to unlock GEO, by linking your verified DJI account to temporarily unlock or self-authorize your flight). Though that’s still an extra step, and in some cases you still might not be able to get around the unlock function in the event of some sensitive national-security locations or situations).

You don’t want to get to a location only to find out you can’t fly there. Instead, check for Temporary Flight Restrictions ahead of time. The easiest way to do this is by checking the Federal Aviation Administration’s Know Before You Fly website. Simply go to the Know Before You Fly airspace map page and scroll down to the “Flying Sites Map.” Input the address of where you intend to fly, and you’ll likely get a clear “yay” or “nay.”

Next up: here’s your drone surveying checklist.

What little tricks or tidbits do you always do before every flight that most people don’t know about? Share your knowledge around what goes into your own drone checklist as a comment below!

2 Comments

  • Mike says:

    Thanks for this. I would suggest that a software/firmware update not be done the night before flying.

    Based on the assumption that all software contains bugs, it’s a good practice to update and then go fly somewhere safe with say, 4-5 flights prior to performing any critical work.

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