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Drone Preflight Checklist

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The FAA, drone manufacturers, and common sense all advise that drone pilots follow checklists at critical points before, during, and after a mission.

This page is about the preflight through post-flight checklist that I personally use when flying a drone for either Part 107 or recreational reasons. It covers checklist items from leaving for the mission, to preflighting the drone, through stowing the drone after the mission.

You can download a printable PDF copy here if you like, but understand that this is simply the checklist that I use. It may or may not be suitable for your flying.

You can also download a zip file of the checklist in both .odt and .pdf form. You can edit the .odt file to your needs using Apache OpenOffice or LibreOffice, both of which are free and open-source.

Most of the items on the checklist are self-explanatory, so I'll just run through them quickly to emphasize a few areas that could do with some comments or explanation.

1. Before Leaving for the Mission

  1. Batteries, controller, Remote ID module, anti-collision light, and phone or tablet are charged,
  2. Any needed cables or attachments (such as an anti-collision light) are in the case,
  3. An SD card is inserted in the aircraft with a spare in the case, and
  4. Airspace, weather, and NOTAMs at the mission area are okay.

There are few things worse than traveling all the way to a mission site to find that you've forgotten something like the Micro SD card, the anti-collision light for a night mission, or the cable that attaches your mobile phone or TRIPLTEK tablet to your remote control; or to find that the weather is bad or that the airspace is restricted. I check these things before I leave for the mission to avoid wasted trips. If I'll be flying near an airport or need to carry an aviation radio transceiver to comply with a waiver or authorization, then I make sure I have that, too.

2. Before Powering Up

  1. Crew, if any, are properly briefed regarding roles, communications, mission, and emergency procedures,
  2. Area is clear of non-involved people or animals,
  3. Overhead is clear in case of emergency or automatic return to home,
  4. Obstacles and magnetic or RF interference sources have been identified,
  5. Airspace, weather, and NOTAMs checked,
  6. Propellers are clean, free of damage, properly attached, and rotate freely,
  7. Motors are free of debris,
  8. Remote ID started and anti-collision light on (if needed),
  9. Gimbal cover is removed,
  10. Lens and filter are clean,
  11. SD card is secure, and
  12. Battery condition and charge are adequate.

A few of the above items bear explanation.

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Regarding item (d), most buildings, in particular, have sources of potential magnetic or RF (radio-frequency) interference. Steel roofs, blower motors, and radio antennas are the most obvious examples. I also check for overhead wires and other obstacles.

It's important to know where these interference and other potential interference sources are so you can avoid them, or at least exercise caution when operating around them.

Item (h) is something that both newbies and experienced pilots sometimes overlook: removing the gimbal cover before flying. You can seriously damage the gimbal if you do this too many times.

Item (j) refers to a quirk of my Autel EVO II 6K. If you push too hard while closing the SD slot cover, you can eject the SD card. So I always double-check it before a flight.

3. Before Takeoff

  1. GPS and RF signal strength are okay (both control and video),
  2. RTH altitude is sufficient to clear trees or obstacles,
  3. Photo and video settings are correct,
  4. No unusual noises from the motors on startup,
  5. Propellers are balanced and free of vibration, and
  6. Initialization sequence is complete with no errors,
  7. Anti-collision light on (if needed), and
  8. Remote ID telemetry verified on phone or tablet.

Item (b) is the one that most-often catches new pilots off-guard. Let me explain.

Drone controllers or apps usually have a default return-to-home altitude, typically about 100 feet (about 30 meters). That's the altitude to which the drone will climb before executing an RTH. If the trees, terrain, or obstacles around you are higher than that, you need to set the RTH altitude high enough to enable the drone to comfortably clear them if it executes an RTH, either by your command or automatically.

4. Immediately After Takeoff

  1. Aircraft hovers accurately with no drift,
  2. Remote control is operating correctly, and
  3. Aircraft responds correctly to control inputs at minimum safe altitude (higher than the tallest person at the site).

All this means is that when I take off, I pause the ascent at about three feet (about one meter) to make sure the drone holds its position; and then ascend just high enough to avoid hitting anyone (or anything) while I move the drone forwards and backwards, and then left and right. It's to make sure the controller and the drone's flight control mechanisms are functioning properly. If there's a problem, recalibrating the drone usually solves it.

5. Before landing

  1. Battery power is adequate for landing in desired spot,
  2. Descent path is clear of obstructions, and
  3. Landing area is clear of uninvolved people or animals.

This is all common sense. The thing that trips up new pilots sometimes is when the battery level is too low for the aircraft to return to home. That usually happens because the drone is fighting a headwind on the way back to the launch area. In that case, your best option is to fly to the closest suitable landing area, and descend and land there. Otherwise your drone may wind up landing (or crashing) in an area from which you can't retrieve it.

6. Before Stowing

  1. Power off,
  2. Check for damage to aircraft,
  3. Check for damage to propellers,
  4. Check for debris in motors,
  5. Check gimbal and lens / filter,
  6. Replace gimbal cover,
  7. Check battery condition and charge level.

Again, this is all common sense: You want to give your drone a once-over before stowing it away so you can correct any problems before the next mission. Of particular importance is checking the battery's condition, not just its charge level. If it's swollen or hot (not just warm, but hot) to the touch, then you need to buy a new battery. Damaged LiPo batteries can explode. They can also cause your drone to crash.

It's also a good idea to let your drone and battery cool down a bit before you put them in a good-fitting case like mine, or a good-fitting drone backpack.

Once again, this is just the checklist that I use. It's not the end-all of drone checklists. Consult your drone's operating manual for guidance about creating a drone flight checklist of your own.

Revised July 31, 2022

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