We have a theory, if a drone cannot land safely, it has no business flying. Assuming your drone does fly safely, you can manually manage the flight and landing, or you can utilize a built-in feature for many machines, RTH. Just what is RTH? Simple enough, RTH stands for Return to Home.
RTH is an automated flight feature that sounds simple enough, but there is more to it than just hitting a button, let’s talk about the capabilities of RTH to help you land safely.
Best RTH drones
What is RTH?
The RTH function on your drone can be a lifesaver. Particularly if you lose sight of your machine in the air (which you should never do, remember those FAA rules) or your remote loses connection to the drone. A tap of a button on the remote or in the software should soar your drone back to a home location.
As I said, your drone needs to know where home is. This can be done in one of two ways, fundamentally. Your drone may be equipped with tech, like GPS, that records your take-off location, the drone then returns to that point. Other drones may track your travels, then manage to reverse your flight back to where you started.
On our daily flier for the longest time, the DJI Mavic Pro, a combination of GPS and image capture is used to determine where home is. When it leaves the ground it sets the GPS location, it then is able to see forward and downward. When the Mavic Pro returns to home, it narrows in on the GPS coordinates and then does its best to match the images as it comes in for a landing. I dare say, it is very accurate, almost always landing within about ten inches of my launch points.
A few drones use your remote or another physical beacon to hone in on, this for both location awareness and for landing accuracy.
If you are flying for pay, or any other form of compensation, you must operate under a different set of rules and possess a commercial drone license. We call it the Part 107, it’s not too hard to get, but it will take some time to learn all the rules. We want to help you learn the rules and get your commercial license, check out our drone pilot training material.
How to use RTH
For most drones and situations the default RTH trigger is a button. Many drones use RTH for safety as well, if your battery is low or you lose connection to your remote control, the drone can fly itself home.
Watch out for that tree!
You might be wondering about mid-air collisions when your drone is autonomously soaring back to its home spot. Particularly of concern if your drone does not have obstacle avoidance sensors on board.
The most common obstacle avoidance technique for RTH is to set a specific altitude. Many drones default to 20 or 30 meters, about 60 or 90 feet above the ground. Living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I try to go even higher, if possible, we have some massive trees around here.
Depending on your flight location, the idea is simply to ensure that your RTH altitude is greater than the tallest tree or building in your flight area.
Are you on the move?
I often fly in a large area with hiking trails, you might have your drone following you while you snowboard or mountain bike. It would suck if your drone decided that the top of that big hill was home and took off without you. There are solutions available that differ by drone, but the idea is to frequently update your home location. You could turn off RTH for that flight as well.
Also take note of where your drone will end up if it does head for home, rather, will you be able to see it make it all the way back? The FAA says you must always be within line-of-sight of your drone, if your set home location is behind some trees or on the other side of a building, you cannot legally utilize the RTH feature of your machine. Sorry. Learn more about the FAA’s rules from the links below:
Warning, look up!
The biggest problem I have with RTH capable drones is when they cannot be overridden. I had an incident once where my flight was to hover a few feet from the ground, then land. I just needed a couple photos of the machine in the air. The low battery warning came on, which was fine, I still had ten times the juice I needed to land, but the RTH kicked in and the drone flew up.
It seems ludicrous that a drone that is 5 feet in the air and just 3 feet over from its Home location should shoot straight up to 60 feet just to move over and come back down, but that’s what happened. Or, that is what would have happened, I was under a tall tree canopy, probably forty feet above my flight plan. If this drone would have let me bypass the automatic RTH and manually land, we would have had no issues at all. Long story short, I caught the drone as it plummeted to the ground.
The lesson is easy, your RTH elevation and flight path must both account for flying over objects and staying under objects. Keep it safe out there.
Drone legal and safety
A few great RTH drones
Before we call it quits for the day, let’s look at a few of the best drones for RTH flying.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
August 2018Release Date
Introduced in August of 2018, the DJI Mavic 2 Pro instantly became the best consumer-class folding drone that DJI had to offer. A marked upgrade over the original Mavic Pro, the Mavic 2 Pro rocks a 1-inch camera sensor for 4K video capture at 100Mbps, multi-direction obstacle avoidance sensors for some of the safest drone flight possible, and much more. OcuSync 2.0 enhances connectivity to the remote control and other accessories, now able to transmit 1080p live stream video well beyond the legal line-of-sight.
With an initial launch price of $1449, plus another $319 to get the Fly More kit with extra batteries, there is a barrier to entry with this machine, but if the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is within your budget, we think you will not be disappointed.
DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
August 2018Release Date
If you run down the spec sheet, the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom and Mavic 2 Pro are the same machine, with one major exception, the camera. The folding quadcopter design offers great portability, the multi-direction obstacle avoidance sensors assist in safe flight and the new capabilities of OcuSync 2.0 add versatility for control and accessories. That is true for both of the drones, the Mavic 2 Zoom, on the other hand, rocks a 2x optical zoom lens on top of a 12MP camera. It shoots 4K video at 100Mbps and can digitally double that zoom for an impressive close-up.
DJI Mavic Air
January 2018Release Date
DJI found great success with the Mavic Pro, they followed that up with the far less expensive Spark. The Mavic Air bridges the gap between these two, offering all the fun features from the smaller Spark as well as all the pro flight features of the Mavic Pro. Better yet, the Mavic Air introduced a 100Mbps data rate for video capture on a DJI drone under $1500. That sounds like a mouthful, suffice to say that the Mavic Air instantly took the crown for the best video at the lowest price of any drone on the market.
After the launch of the Mavic 2 series of drones, we had to recommend the newer Mavic line as the best camera on a compact drone, but the Mavic Air still remains our top pick if ultimate portability is your concern. The Mavic Air manages to pack down to almost fit comfortably in your pocket.
DJI Mavic Pro
November 2016Release Date
The DJI Mavic Pro is a compact, folding drone that was a pioneer for portability. This quadcopter folds down to fit easily in a backpack, or large pocket, while opening up to take 4K video to over 40mph in the sky. The 3-axis stabilized gimbal offers very smooth footage and OcuSync enables long range and HD live video streaming. The Phantom line of drones may have established DJI as a leader in the consumer drone market, but the Mavic Pro made high-quality aerial photography fun and highly accessible.
Yuneec Typhoon H Plus
July 2018Release Date
The hexacopter design of Yuneec's Typhoon line of drones has been quite popular, if not successful. The design has become an icon in the industry and the safety of having extra propellers has been well accepted in the commercial market. The Yuneec Typhoon H Plus is a second generation model of their consumer focus. The Typhoon H Plus lands somewhere in between the DJI Phantom and DJI Inspire line of drones in terms of specs and price. Packing a 20MP 4K camera on a 3-axis gimbal, folding design and market average flight times and speeds, the Intel RealSense obstacle avoidance sensor may a leading reason to consider this drone over others.
You'll be able able to check out the Yuneec Typhoon H Plus for about $1899 from a few retailers.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0
May 2018Release Date
The DJI Phantom series of drones are some of the best machines on the market, every iteration makes improvements on the previous and in the case of the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0, we're talking about improved motors, more efficient propellers and the first Phantom drone to rock OcuSync connectivity.
The Phantom 4 Pro series was DJI's best drone at launch for object avoidance technology, a trend that continues and is improved upon with the V2.0 series, adding radar and more obstacle avoidance goodness. The newer drone comes with the same 20MP 4K camera as previous, still one of the best camera drones on the market.
The difference between the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 for around $1,499 and the Phantom 4 Pro+ V2.0 for $1,749 is the inclusion of a 5.5-inch built-in display on the remote of the Pro+. The bright, Android powered display is the only difference between the two machines.
January 2018Release Date
The Hubsan H501S was one of the first GPS enabled drones from Hubsan to offer a 1080p camera and brushless motors. This sounds like a common thing, silly to celebrate by today's standards, but this was a game changer for Hubsan and the toy drone market. Looking at 2017 and earlier, most toy-class drones, which included most all of Hubsan's drones, used inefficient brushed motors and all flew in what you might call ATTI mode. While the early drones had no navigation or a tools for object avoidance or flight assist, GPS in the H501S gave it the ability to hover and even set a GPS controlled route through the mobile app on your smart device.
With RTH functionality and more, the Hubsan H501S remains one of the best drones that live in between toy-class and what we might call the premium experience of full GPS flight control. Check out the Hubsan H501S for around $168 and watch for deals as low as $150.
Yuneec Mantis Q
August 2018Release Date
The Yuneec Mantis Q is an easy drone to get excited about, it packs a slim, folding form-factor, it flies for longer than most drones on the market, it has DJI Mavic Air level specifications and it has a cool trick, voice commands. We must admit, the long list of flight features and modes exceeded our needs of a drone, but the things we asked it to do, it did very well. 33 minutes of flight time allows for a lot of action in the air, the voice control features make for a good time as well.
We understand that this is a first generation of the product, we really like it, but the camera is not stabilized. It's obvious that this drone was made for pilots, not for photographers. That about sums up our opinion of the machine: if you are looking for a fun drone to fly, the Mantis Q is fantastic, if you are looking for a flying camera, this isn't the drone you're looking for.
Check out the Yuneec Mantis Q for about $450 on Amazon, down from its original $499 price at launch.
Time to go home
Tap that RTH button, it’s time to wrap up this article and head on home. Be sure to look into your settings when you fly, automation is fun and all, but you are still responsible for your drone making it back to earth safely.
Have any fun RTH success or failure stories you’d care to share? Hit the comments below.