How Drones Work

How Drones Work: A Beginner’s Guide

The Drone Gear Articles

How Drones Work

If you’ve come here, you’re probably wondering how drones work. Let’s begin with some background and explore what drones really are and how they’re used first. Drones, which are also known as quadcopters, multirotors, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are powerful machines that basically function as flying robots.

Most times there is a source of power (usually a battery pack) that’s used to drive horizontal propellers that give lift to the vehicle. Available in multiple shapes and sizes, they were initially developed by military and government agencies for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. After aerial technology progressed far enough, military drones were then armed with bombs and missiles for wartime use. Today, drones are also being used for more humanitarian and commercial purposes, as videographers, photographers, police departments, farmers, search and rescue teams, real estate agents, and curious people all over the world discover how to take to the skies.

Aerial Image of Italian Seaside Town

Drone Types

While the military departments of each and every country may have specialized super-drones, the size and shape that might be used by the average person will vary. We can see how drones work differently by broadly categorizing them in accordance with their size i.e. very small drones, mini drones, medium drones and large drones.

Very small drones are usually thought of as toys, and may not have any camera or have limited range capabilities. Mini drones usually include first person view (FPV) racing drones and can include many of the DIY, build-it-yourself versions that can travel quickly and at a small range from the pilot.

Medium sized drones
are usually thought of as drones with increased range and camera capabilities that can be used by hobbyists or professionals. You can consider DJI, Yuneec, GoPro, Autel, and 3DR in the “medium drone” category.

Large drones usually require a high level of skill to operate and can carry very, very expensive camera equipment or even transport lifesaving cargo!

Fixed Wing Flying

Drones can also be classified by their type of flight method and hardware. Some of the most common types of flight methods include fixed wing, multirotor, and quadcopter. The flight method is one of the most important characteristics in determining how drones work.

Fixed wing drones have exactly that, wings that are fixed on the side like an airplane like the GoolRC. They typically need a runway or catapult for hassle-free launching whereas other fixed wing drones can be launched via the operator’s hands. This type of drone can fly at high speeds and usually will stay airborne longer as compared to multirotor drones.

For instance, the eBee senseFly fixed wing drone, which is generally used for the purpose of agricultural mapping and crop health analysis, travels along a pre-programmed route and conveniently captures high-quality images that are later integrated in 3-D models as well as maps. This type of drone is widely used by farmers for improving their agricultural processes, crop yield, and enhancing their production due to the large areas of land that they need to cover.

DJI Phantom 4 In Flight

Multiple Rotors, More Control

On the other hand, multirotor drones are more popular for most pilots and (as the name implies) have multiple motors on arms that drive propellers which generate lift. Multirotors and quadcopters are extensively used by photographers and videographers as the nicer models can be easily maneuvered in the air and are very stable.

The difference between multirotors and quadcopters is that multirotors can have as many arms as are necessary (many of the most expensive and impressive drones are multirotors) while a quadcopter is limited to 4 arms and 4 separate propellers. Multiple arms and propellers differentiate quadcopters from RC drones (with 1 propeller) because they enable extra speed, height, stability, weight capacity, and mobility.

The DJI Phantom series is the most well-known in this category (read our review of the  Phantom 4 Pro !) These latest, many-armed drones are capable of some incredible tasks, whether it’s lighting up a forest at night like it’s full noon, or carrying people to far away destinations.

Design Tradeoffs

Understanding how drones are constructed is an important piece to understanding how drones work. These machines are typically created from materials that are lightweight like plastic or composite material. Lightweight construction reduces the the weight of the machine, improves maneuverability, improves available flight altitude, and increases flight time.

Each drone type has trade offs, however. For example, fixed wing drones tend to have a longer flight time, but are more difficult to maneuver, while multirotors can spin on a dime but have a more limited long distance flight range.

Many aerial drones in the consumer market have multiple rotors since they require extra stability for lifting the battery, camera, and body of the UAV. Multiple motors provide additional lifting capabilities and enable the drone to fly faster and higher and carry extra weight. Operators should use caution when carrying cargo with drones, as the additional load can cause an unwanted crash if not planned for properly!

Neuschwanstein Castle Drone Picture

Aerial Photography

When people see amazing aerial photography, it usually prompts them to want to understand how drones work. After all, UAVs are incredible platforms for taking great pictures from a unique and higher perspective and they’re a fast-changing technology that can captivate the imagination. To capture new angles, drones can feature highly advanced cameras with multi-axis gimbal systems for increased stability.

Many of the latest drones are equipped with 1080p, 4K output, or even 2x optical zoom! The cameras are controlled remotely via a smartphone or display screen by either the pilot or a second operator whose sole job is to control the movement and focus of the camera. Many experienced photographers use knowledge of how drones work in conjunction with camera technology to compose excellent pictures and run aerial photography, videography, and mapping businesses of their own. Make sure to read our post on finding drone video services before you hire someone to do aerial photography work!

Control Systems and Remote Piloting

In order to input their commands and fly their drones efficiently, drone flyers need effective controllers. Many quadcopter, multirotor, and UAV systems can be easily controlled by intermediate to beginner users via the latest handheld pilot remote controls. These controllers are used for launching, landing, taking pictures & video, and navigating airspace and come in varied forms that include tablets, smartphones and gamepad based controllers.

In order to understand how drones work, it’s important to know that controllers must communicate with the drones with the help of radio waves. Typically, drones are operated using 2.4 or 5.8 gigahertz of radio frequency. In many cases, the UAV also transmits live video back to the pilot to enable feedback in real time. In fact, this is the same frequency that your wifi router probably uses! The latest higher-end aerial control systems have advanced features like GPS tracking to position and stabilize in the air, return-to-home in case of a lost signal connection, and collision avoidance that makes sure near-misses don’t become last flights.

GPS has been a major advancement in the aerial world because it allows operators to direct the movement and direction of the drone instantaneously and exactly. Some of the latest drones on the market like the portable and compact Mavic Pro  sport software like tap to fly, “follow me” mode, and active target tracking are some of the more advanced features that are quickly becoming more and more accessible with each new release.

DJI Mavic Pro

Powering The Flight

Upon startup, the batteries engage power to the rotors, the drone propellers start spinning, and the pilot is able to change the direction and altitude of the drone. By increasing the speed of the rotors, drone pilots can lift the machine higher, enabling it to fly at higher altitudes. They can also tilt the UAV on either side and provide it with additional lift and move it backwards or forwards with simple game pad style controls.

The latest consumer mid sized drones come with gyroscopes and accelerometers that enable them to maintain their direction while in flight. Such instruments are capable of detecting linear speed, tilt, and other cues that further restrict the drone from falling out of the sky or off of the planned flight route. Manufacturers are starting to include these features which have a large influence on how these drones work and how pilots will need to master these skills. As you’ll see here, some are pushing the limits ‘higher’ than others…

How Drone Batteries Work

Typically, a drone features removable batteries, which provides the machine with enough time to fly at higher altitudes. Most of the drones run on lithium polymer batteries that last no more than 25 minutes, based on the amount of load they are capable of bearing. Thus, remote pilots need to understand how drones work and plan to bring their drones down for adequate battery replacement fairly regularly. A battery has a tough job – it must not only power the propellers, but also the camera, radio frequency, and on-board electronics that allow it to respond to pilot commands.

A standard consumer drone isn’t able to exceed 30 minutes of flying time as most drones in the market are limited by the costs of current battery technology. It is important that pilots consider purchasing and packing extra batteries when heading out for a client flight or extended flying session. Apart from this, many experimental drones run on solar power and come with solar cells that are loaded on the wings. Some drone flyers also use hydrogen fuel cells to run their machines efficiently and without much interruption. The most advanced and well-financed pilots also have the option of using drones that come with combustion engine. Such drones can stay in the air for as long as an hour and run at a high speed of 100 kilometers per hour.

Flying a Drone in Different Weather Types

It is also important to understand that current drones aren’t designed to withstand sleet, snow or rain. Thus, it is always better that one avoids flying drones during such conditions because precipitation can cause irreparable damage to the electronic components on board the aircraft. It is always better that the pilot checks the precipitation level, intensity and probability of any kind of wet weather before flying the drone via a service like 1800wxbrief.com or the Hover app.

It’s also crucial for drone users to avoid flying drones during foggy weather conditions for the same reasons. Fog may further increase precipitation and reduce visibility, which makes matters worse for any aerial operation. There’s rarely any point in flying a drone if it’s not visible beyond a close distance as any footage quality will likely be limited and the existing FAA laws do not permit drone pilots and users to fly their drones beyond visual line of sight.
Humidity is another huge factor that must be taken into consideration while flying drones. Prolonged use of drones during humid conditions or environment may harm its both the propellers and electronic system. The best conditions to fly are cool (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), clear (at least 3 statute miles of visibility), low humidity, no wind, and no precipitation. High speed winds may also hinder pilots from positioning and flying their drones conveniently. Typically, pilots shouldn’t fly their drones when the speed of the wind or gusts exceeds twenty miles per hour depending on the rating of the drone being piloted.

It’s also worth noting that high winds can cause the drone to work harder to stay in the air and drain the battery at a faster rate than average. Any pilot that doesn’t understand how drones work and interact with weather systems is setting him or herself up for a rough flight!

Up to this point, the hardware and physics of how drones work have been addressed, but there are many external factors to consider as well.

When it comes to flying a drone, it is important for the pilot to check whether the temperature and weather conditions are favorable or not. For instance, both extreme cold and hot temperatures can cause severe harm to different components of the drone, thereby affecting its flight and overall performance. Thus, during hot or high temperature days, one must prepare for shorter flights as during the hot weather conditions the motors will have to work more for generating enough lift. Higher temperatures (above 85 degrees Fahrenheit) can also overheat and harm the drone’s electrical components and parts, namely the battery.

On the other hand, during cold days (below 32 degrees Fahrenheit), pilots must arrange for shorter flights and longer intervals between flights due to a drop in battery performance in colder temperatures. Pilots in freezing temperatures risk the battery level dropping below the required voltage level, thereby cutting off the motors. There is also risk of icing on the UAV in freezing temperatures and as always, the effect of the weather on the pilot and crew must also be considered (cold fingers are not fun as a pilot!). Hence, it is always a good idea to limit the use of drones during very cold conditions.

A New Aerial Frontier

In a nutshell, drones play a major role in our lives today. Understanding the basics of how drones work will prepare you to make informed decisions on a drone for your specific application. It must be noted that the technology used for flying and operating drones is evolving with every passing day. In fact, when combined with advanced features and artificial intelligence, quadcopters and multirotors may be able to exceed a our expectations as a society about what’s even possible.

The consumer drones that are readily available in the market today are increasingly getting affordable and are already leaps and bounds more capable of performing advanced tasks in comparison to what they were originally capable of. There’s never been a better time to jump in, learn how drones work, and join the fun!

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