Home Knowledge Base Knowledge Base: What is Headless Mode on a Quadcopter Drone?

Knowledge Base: What is Headless Mode on a Quadcopter Drone?

Ever wondered how 'headless mode' works for a drone/quadcopter? Many affordable drones are now shipping with the feature. Here's how it all works!

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SEE: Headless mode drones on sale

Of late, we’ve been witnessing launches of various quad-copters and other drones with headless mode. The general perception is that headless mode makes it easier to fly and control a quadcopter/drone, but there’s still some confusing surrounding the idea of headless mode on drones.

…and none other than drone manufacturers are to blame for that, especially when you’re talking Chinese, inexpensive drones.

Before I begin to explain what headless mode is, let us first talk about how a quadcopter or a drone works at a very basic level. Like any vehicle, every quadcopter drone has a front and a rear, BUT often with a design that’s so symmetrical that its tough to make out between the front and rear.

To solve this problem, many drone makers ship their drones with propellers that are color co-ordinated; for example, red propellers on the front and black on the rear (and so on).

However, once the drone is a certain distance apart from you, depending on its size, it is virtually impossible to tell between the colors… which again poses the problem of orientation. Some manufacturers supply LEDs on drones which really help, but then again these LEDs are pretty ineffective in daylight.

What is Headless Mode?

In simple terms, headless mode is basically a method implemented on a drone that allows pilots to give up worrying about orientation altogether.

The functioning of headless mode is pretty simple; the only pre-requisite is that before taking off, you’re required to position the drone in such a way that its front is your front.

Since yaw (rotation around it’s own axis; controlled by the left stick on a Mode 2 controller) anyway doesn’t have anything to do with orientation (left is left and right is right all the time, regardless of where your drone is pointing at), it is how the drone reacts to rudder (‘swaying’; controlled by the right stick on a Mode 2 controller) that changes.

What is headless mode

How Does Headless Mode Work?

When you take off with the drone pointing in the front, algorithms running in the drone’s micro-controller ensure that any directional change is compensated.

In other words, even when you yaw your drone 90 degrees to the left (so that it’s now ‘facing’ your left), it’ll still go forward when you push the rudder forward (on a non-headless mode drone, this would make the drone go left).

Should You Buy a Drone With Headless Mode?

Depends. If you want to take your hobby to the next level, I’d recommend you rather practice on a ‘regular’ aka non-headless mode drone. That’s because most drones that do offer headless mode are toy grade, whereas the more serious drones (aka ‘hobby grade’) don’t often have the headless mode feature. And anyway, nothing like being a master of your drone in all aspects!

But if you’re just looking to test the waters (and just really check if the hobby suits you), headless mode provides and easy entry into the world of drones.

However, it’s 2016 and almost every toy drone comes with features like headless mode and altitude hold mode. That said, if you do wish to fly in FPV anytime soon (it’s really not that expensive these days), you do not want to get a headless mode drone.

What Is The Least I Can Spend To Get A Headless Mode Drone?

click picture below to find listing on Amazon

The Eachine H8 Mini (read the full review here) is the cheapest headless mode drone (at the time of publishing this article). It is a mere $13.99 shipped globally, and is also available on Amazon US.

There are other headless mode drones under the $25 mark which you can find here. So, quite clearly, you don’t really have to spend too much to get one!

Feel free to drop any comments/questions/queries that you might have about headless mode and drones.

  • Nice Article explained in simple words.

  • Pauli Isoaho

    Thanks, 10th in google search but best article

    • Thanks Pauli! Glad you enjoyed the article. Please let me know if there’s more concepts that you think need to be cleared for drone newbies!

  • Mathieu Aubin

    Well explained, thanks

    • Cheers.

      • Mason

        Is there any drone that at a press of a button hover a relase a minidrone

        • Could you elaborate? I didn’t quite understand.

        • No.bs

          I too am quite familiar with drones but I can say with most certainty that a drone “releasing” another minidrone has not been manufactured or even created at this point in time. I can also say with most certainty that the reason for this obvious lack of innovation in the drone world is simply, what in the hell would be the point?

          • hmmm

            what about that hex drone that has the robotic arms by Pro-Drone?….strong enough to lift some lawn/pool deck chairs…maybe overkill for mini drones handling since it’s industrial grade quality & money but plausible. model # PD6B-AW-ARM 🙂

  • elias Azar

    hello, is there a mode where you can fix the nose (or camera lets say) to a certain direction and then fly towards that direction, pass next to it and go beyond it while the nose is still fixed towards that fixed location ? (its like taking a 180 degrees video front , side, back) …

    • I get what you mean – there’s no mode as such that accomplishes that but I think drones that follow you can do what you’re talking about up to a certain extent.

      The idea you propose is actually very interesting and I’m pretty certain drones equipped with that feature will come out soon.

  • Jose Maria González-Calatayud

    Hello, I´ve V686G drone with headless mode, but I don´t know how return
    I read press 2 seconds buttun camera, but I don´t know if it´s necessary first push before take off and after when I need return.

    • Yes, you need to put the quadcopter in headless mode before you take off. More importantly, you must position the quadcopter such that its nose points away from you.

      • Jose Maria González-Calatayud

        Thanks for reply Yash, I try them tomorrow, now it´s windy, first press camera button for 2 seconds with dron apooint to me and after in the air repeat press button.

  • samljer22

    omfg get on with what it is, a person that has enough knowledge to ask what headless mode is, would know what a quadcopter is.

  • Horváth Gábor

    Thanx for the article, it helped me a lot. Only one question remained: can this “headless mode” switched off / on, or it is only always “on”?
    Because you suggested to buy for “wannabe pros” drone without headless mode, but if it is switchable, why not with headless mode?

    • Dagwood

      My drone (Syma X5SW) can switch off or on. I’m guessing some other drones might not. Check with the drone model before you buy it.

      • deskwar

        How can you ?, my x5sw just change low to high.

        • Dagwood

          I haven’t used it in a while, but if I remember correctly, you have to place it on the floor, in front of you facing away, have it powered on, but throttled all the way down so the motors are off. Then hold one of the shoulder buttons for 5 or 10 seconds (I can’t remember which one). It’ll make a beep, but I think you have to wait for it to beep again… maybe. And then it’s in headless mode.

    • Almost every quadcopter drone will allow you to turn headless mode off (there are a couple exceptions though, but I’m sure they don’t make them anymore). And why I suggest staying away from headless mode drones (if you want to get into quadcopter racing and such) is because headless mode will spoil you and cause your brain to be ‘lazy’ with the orientation.

  • pulidoggy

    Hello Yash, and thanks for posting your interesting tutorial on headless mode. I’m a beginner and I have a Syma X8W that I did choose exactly because of this feature.

    One thing still unclear to me is what happens if, for instance, the yaw is badly trimmed or willingly kept all way on? Is the backward command still able to bring back the drone in this situation, since its heading is continuously changing?

    • Yes, backward command will work fine. This is because despite a badly trimmed yaw, the controller keeps track of how much the aircraft is yaw-ing — regardless of whether it is manual yaw or trim.

      • pulidoggy

        Hi Yash, and thanks for confirming that. I thought it had to be this way but, nonetheless, what a huge workload for the compass-related logic! 🙂
        And another thing worth pointing out, at least for newbies like me, is the fact that the headless coordinates system is valid ONLY as long as one keeps “looking” towards the forward direction after setting headless mode and take-off. That is, if for instance your drone is flying away from you in the direction of your left shoulder and, attempting to keep visual contact, you rotate with your body 90° counterclockwise, then the headless reference is dramatically lost (as I found out at my expenses…)
        Best regards
        Roberto

        • Indeed @pulidoggy:disqus, that’s a valuable addition. I’ll feature this comment of yours so it helps other readers too. 🙂

          • pulidoggy

            Hi Yash, and happy to be of any help, if I’m able to.
            And, while we are into headless mode, yet another doubt… (I know I’m abusing of your patience but you know, newbie’s life is nothing but jumping from one doubt to another hanging from the liane of uncertainty 😉
            So, my new dilemma is about in-flight trimming while in headless mode: for instance, a forward trimming correction will affect the “headless forward” or the “physical drone’s forward”? Good sense would suggest the latter, but who knows, drone’s world is full of surprises…
            Thank you!

          • Donald S. Andrews

            Trim the quad in stck mode; it should stay reasonably trimmed in headless mode.

  • ElGuapo

    How do I know what replacement propellers to get for the LS 115? I can’t seem to find anything specific. I know its a cheap toy but my dog ate the spare set the very first day!!
    Thanks!

  • one thing I dislike is an article that buries or hides the answer to the question – with a bunch of mumbo jumbo from the beginning…. what is so evil about answering the question FIRST – and give me all your mumbo jumbo after you’ve answered the question ???

    • jim

      It’s common for articles to give a background first. Why not just skip ahead to the parts you want to read?

      • Dennis Latham

        Why not just give the answer at the beginning – and leave all the background crap after the answer is given – even skipping over – you still have to read through stuff that wastes time and doesn’t get you straight to the answer.

        • Me

          Try methyphenidate…aka Ritalin….that may aid u to some degree.

    • Robert Miranda

      Greetings person.

      Hum, an interesting question. Were I his teacher and he attempted to hand in this article as an assignment, I would have given him a B+/A. Were he to hand in said assignment with just the answer first followed up by the explanation later in the essay, well then; most likely I’d have given him and F/A. Why? Because, it is very difficult to just answer a question without explaining not only what you are talking about in the answer but also what one means with one’s answer. The author has no clue as to the level of exp. any given reader may have. LOL, the funny thing is that I will get 1 question/reply like yours for every 20 or so I get asking for more information. Anyway, that is why the author wrote the answer the way he did.

  • JoAnna Marie Stone

    HEY i AM HAVING THE WORST LUCK WITH EVEN GETTING MY SYMA X8W DRONE OFF THE GROUND! WHAT AM i DOING WRONG? THIS IS MY FIRST ONE

    • You’d have to provide more info than that I’m afraid. Could you make a quick video and link it here so I can take a look?

  • No.bs

    that was one excellent explanation of headless mode, my friend. simple, to the point and worded perfect enough that even my 6 year old daughter understood it. if nothing else in life suites you Yash or you just wanna try a new beginning, you should become a “professional explainer”. not sure if it would pay well but success in that field would be a certainty for you Yash. if I could also add, I am really liking the ridiculous selection of drones now and the prices have plummeted since I first got into the hobby about two years ago. its flippin awesome, a lot of fun and I don’t have to cry anymore when I wreck one. so sick!

    • I’ll keep that in mind, cheers!

  • Nick Heidl

    What part of the system does the headless feature reside? Meaning, whete is the algorithm?

    • Simple – in the FC. To think of it, it’s hardly even complicated; data from the compass is sent to the FC which compensates accordingly. The best part is that the compensation magnitude goes back right to zero once the quadcopter has done 360-degrees, so it’s all just an idea that was waiting to be put into action with hardly any additional costs for hardware and algorithm. Cheers!

  • rcnewbie

    I can’t understand one thing – why in headless mode there’s no accelerometer put in controller to adjust for controller movement? That way forward direction could always mean “away from controller” and backward would mean “towards controller” etc.
    You would never have to worry about what pulidoggy wrote.
    Are there any drones like that at all?

    • That’s a very interesting point you raise! I think it has a fundamental flaw though. Imagine this: you have your drone stuck in a tree, and you give stick input. It somehow manages to untangle and get in the air, but that’s after you’ve been giving it yaw input for 30 seconds. Now, according to the controller, the drone is facing away from you (when in fact it is directly looking into your eyes 😉 ). So forward in this case will be backwards — and could spell trouble.

      Which is why the currently used setup is what they use… especially in super affordable quadcopters like the Eachine H8 Mini