Today, everything is connected to the internet. Drones are not an exception.
Consumer drones use WiFi to carry out a number of functions.
But is WiFi absolutely critical to flying a drone? We explore in this post.
Why Do Some Drones Use WiFi?
Back in the olden days, WiFi was available only on computers. But with the technology evolving and becoming smart enough to be shrunk, it soon became available on smaller devices like phones, tablets, and drones.
Presently there is a huge cross-section of drone devices that are reliant on WiFi for a host of capabilities including being remotely accessible.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) that are designed to be WiFi enabled are made that way in order to broadcast video to a computer, tablet, or smartphone, for example.
Other drones are designed that way to allow them be remote controllable through a tablet or mobile.
A notable example of this is the AR Drone 2.0 that incorporates high-end interactive controls into their app.
The Relationship Between WiFi and Radio Wave Transmission
In order to control a drone from afar, you must be able to communicate with it wirelessly. And radio waves are employed most of the time for this purpose.
Radio waves are an invisible wave form on the electromagnetic spectrum. And like all things having to do with waves, their frequencies are measured in hertz (Hz).
Extremely low frequencies fall in the range between 3Hz and 30Hz, while tremendously high frequencies lie between 300Hz and 3000Hz.
Now in order for radio waves to do their magic, there must be a transmitter to send messages and a receiver to get the messages sent. Now you know why your drone’s remote control is called an RC transmitter — or if you didn’t, you do now. This is the most basic understanding of the two-way communication by which you remotely control your drone.
An important aspect of this two-way communication is that both the transmitter and receiver have to be tuned to the same frequency in order to communicate.
This frequency is by no means unique, and any other transmitter can interfere with the two-way communication. Thus, any remote control attuned to the same frequency as that of your controller and your drone should be able to control your drone.
To avoid this unsavory situation, devices are equipped with a unique identification code to filter out any incoming transmission.
The unique identification code allows a device to identify an incoming transmission from one particular radio frequency as the transmission it wants to receive.
In the case of your drone and its remote control device, they are paired using a “radio frequency identification” or RFID. Thus, any information or frequency broadcast over that RFID is prefixed with the RFID so that the receiver recognizes it as its own and complies.
Lower frequencies tend to travel farther and at lower power cost than higher ranged frequencies. Lower range frequencies also tend to have high penetration power, able to penetrate dense objects — another reason why they are great for remote controlling a drone.
On the other hand, the lower the frequency, the larger the antenna has to be in order to receive the frequency. This is not exactly ideal for your mini-sized drone.
So most remote control drones use 900Mhz for transmission. Higher frequencies — in the neighborhood of 2.4GHz — are predominantly transmitted through WiFi.
Many drone models today use WiFi because it is an effective way to transmit the ultra-high frequencies on which they run.
While ultra-high frequencies like this don’t travel very far and consume a lot of power, they can easily be tapped into by smartphones and tablets without any need for accessories.
Can You Use a Drone Without WiFi?
Fortunately, yes. You do not need WiFi to pilot your drone, or even to take photographs or videos with it.
That said, there are other things you may need WiFi for. For example, most drones require you to download an app before flying. You are either going to need mobile data or WiFi for that.
But after you download the app, no internet connection is required to get things going.
DJI drones and some other top brands are quite capable of carrying out a mapping or waypoint mission by way of proprietary software packages like Drone Deploy.
You plot the drone’s mission on the software and upload to the drone and then launch on your mobile device. The drone will take off, carry out the mission, and land within a few inches of where it took off.
These devices are even able to return home for battery changes and resume the mission — even when out of radio range of the controller in your hand.
Local Data Mode
In 2017, DJI introduced local data mode that breaks any internet connection between their drones and its pilot’s smartphone. The company introduced the initiative in a bid to bolster the security and data privacy of pilots when they use that mode.
They hastened the release of this “private” mode in response to concerns from the US Army about the cyber vulnerabilities related to the ability of DJI drones to save flight logs, photos, and videos onto their smartphone app and then DJI’s servers should the user wish to do so.
The local data mode had been added to DJI’s suite of apps by the end latter parts of 2017, making DJI drones the clearest example of drones that can be piloted without the use of a live internet connection via WiFi.
What Does a Drone Need WiFi for?
Now, piloting a drone does not require WiFi. But making use of some of its other features might.
WiFi and GPS
GPS is one of the most important features to dominate the consumer drone landscape in the last decade. Many drone manufacturers incorporate different GPS features into their drones to make them safer and more easy to fly and control.
So do you need WiFi to use GPS features?
Fortunately, no. You do not need WiFi for your drone’s GPS to work.
But you do need a GPS signal.
Some drone manufacturers incorporate GPS receivers in both their drones and their receivers, while others put them only in the drone itself.
In the situation where there is no GPS signal in your remote control, your phone will receive the GPS signal when needed for functions like Dynamic Home Point and Follow Me.
And it is a good thing that GPS does not rely on an internet connection to be effective.
If that were not the case, manufacturers would not be able to enforce key restrictions like geofencing that restricts drones from crossing over into restricted airspace like when a pilot flew a drone over the White House lawn in 2015.
Another key GPS feature is the home point feature that allows you to update the home point location to which your drone can return should it lose connection with your controller.
All the convenient features of a drone will be available to you even in the absence of a WiFi connection.
WiFi and Photography
Are drones able to take photos and videos without WiFi? Yes, they are. Will the quality of those shots be diminished by the lack of WiFi? No, they won’t.
Drones are equipped to store the shots and videos they take on the SD card installed rather than uploading to the cloud. The quality will be the same whether you have an active internet connection or not.
If you find your drone is not recording any new footage, it could be a sign that your SD card may be corrupted or simply out of storage.
Your photo and video quality depends solely on the quality of the camera and gimbal your drone carries.
WiFi and Live Streaming
If you have a DJI drone you can live stream by using SkyTalk with the DJI Smart Controller. With this setup you can stream HD video and audio directly onto Facebook, Youtube, and others.
But the DJI Smart Controller is not very common.
You can take advantage of the DJI Go 4 app which supports live streaming. After setting it up, you don’t require any data to live stream images unto your mobile device.
Other manufacturers have their own solutions for live streaming. For example, drones like Breeze4K have built-live streaming capabilities which work in the absence of WiFi.
DJI FlightHub is DJI’s solution for managing drone operations at scale. Chances are high that if you are just a casual drone fan then you have no need for managing several drones remotely at once, but if you’re looking at using drones for farming purposes…
DJI FlightHub can be a breath of fresh air, provided you have an active internet connection to enable you access the flight information on the platform.
DJI’s FlightHub will not be of any help to you if you don’t have a WiFi or data connection.
Would This Be the Same for Mobile Data?
The exact same reasons for which you need a WiFi network to operate your drone are the ones for which you would need mobile data.
You can fly your drone without a mobile data connection. But to access and use some of its features, you may need to be connected to the internet.
The amount of data you would require depends on what you plan on doing so it is hard to conjure up an arbitrary amount. You can cut down on data usage by activating airplane mode when flying your drone, and then switching it back on when you require it for a particular feature.
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