Drones vs. RC Helicopters: What’s the Difference?

Last updated November 5th, 2019
A helicopter flying over an icy tundra

Remote control helicopters have been around much longer than multicopters — what most people refer to as ‘drones’ — have. But they are not as widely known as their more illustrious cousins.

Any unmanned aerial vehicle that flies without the benefit of a pilot in the cockpit would qualify as a drone. And that includes remote-controlled helicopters.

But there are differences between your neighbor’s ‘drone’ and an out-and-out RC helicopter. And that is what we explore in this article.

What is the Difference Between a Drone and a Helicopter?

There are a few differences that set an RC helicopter apart from a drone.

The first of those differences has to do with structure and look. Helicopters sometimes use one rotor, but it is more common to see them with two: one rotor at the top and another at the end of the tail.

On the other hand, multi-copter drones use more rotors to fly. Most drones will use 4 rotors — hence the most common name of quadcopter — but hexacopters and even octacopters exist (drones with six and eight rotors, respectively).

Another aspect that sets these two unmanned aerial devices apart is the complexity involved in the way they fly.

For example, the flight of an RC helicopter is controlled by the pitch of the rotor blades and the tail rotor. Understanding how these work, and how to repair the supporting components should they ever go bad, requires engineering knowledge and expertise.

Conversely, drones are propelled and powered by a much simpler system—even though they use more rotors.

The four rotors that propel a drone are fixed in pitch unlike those on a helicopter. They also fly at varying speeds to control the multi-copters flight. In order to yaw or turn, one or two of the blades simply has to speed up or slow down to tilt the device in the required direction.

Compared to an RC helicopter, the mechanics of a drone are simple, consisting of only one moving part (a fan) attached to an engine.

This simplicity is key to the next big difference between RC helicopters and drones; cost.

Because of the complexity and highly technological engineering involved in the way they work, RC helicopters are more costly to produce. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily expensive, but it means you get significantly less bang for your buck.

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Because drones are relatively simple in their workings and design, they are comparatively cheaper to produce than similar sized RC helicopters.

Repairing any damaged parts is also cheaper compared to what repairing an RC helicopter of the same size would cost.

Technology and costs are therefore two huge reasons why drones are more popular than RC helicopters and more readily available to the public and various industries.

Another thing that differentiates RC helicopters from drones would be their battery life. Helicopters tend to use less energy to produce more lift, meaning they are capable of longer flight times for the same amount of energy.

You may be wondering why that is the case.

Drones use more energy than helicopters in flight because they are less efficiently designed.

Drones also expend a lot of energy in slowing the blades down during aerial maneuvers or tricks. Whereas, this is not the case with helicopters; they don’t exhaust any energy when adjusting the rotor pitch for aerial maneuvers.

This inefficient use of energy is the reason behind the notoriously short flight times of many drones, as well as the fact that they’re often heavier — requiring more energy to keep the weight up.

Are Drones Easier to Fly?

At this point you may be wondering why manufacturers don’t simply double down on the simplicity of drones and create those for pilots to fly. That sounds like a better choice, given the complexity of the helicopter design.

After all, their simple design and resulting low cost would make this a sound choice from an economic point of view.

So, why not?

The answer to that would lie in that fact that drones, while easier and cheaper to make and maintain, are not necessarily easier to fly.

Drones come with a lot of on-board software that helps in stabilizing flight. Without the help of the software, they would be nearly impossible for a human to pilot.

There are simply too many variables to consider.

For example, instead of controlling the pitch on one blade like they would in a helicopter, a drone pilot would have to control and adjust four different blades.

This is impractical for piloted vehicles.

So, are drones easier to fly than RC helicopters?

Sure, so long as they come with onboard software and all the other must have autonomous systems.

In that case, drones are more open to entry level pilots. They are more stable and good for carrying payloads.

The stability and guidance offered by the drones systems also make them more suitable for jobs that need balance and movement control like photography and film shooting.

Furthermore, you can perform a lot more tricks and maneuvers with a drone that you can with an RC helicopter.

Maintaining control while piloting an RC helicopter depends all on you. There are no autonomous modes to piggy back on, so they present a real challenge to flight enthusiasts seeking for a hands-on flying experience.

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Can You Get RC Helicopters With Cameras?

Drones are usually the devices associated with cameras, and this is because their stability makes them better for the purpose of recording and taking photos.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an RC helicopter with a camera — and if you did find one, chances are that it either wouldn’t be very good, it would be expensive, or both of those negative things in one.

Which Should I Choose?

There are pros and cons to both drones and RC helicopters, and you would have to choose among them the one which works for you.

Drones

Pros

  • Drones are great if what you want is a device to easily control. For example, beginner drones usually have a feature called “headless mode” which allows pilots to control the drone as they face it. This means pilots don’t have to take note of the front or back of the drone while piloting. If you direct ‘right’, the drone will drift ‘right’ from where you are looking at it, instead of the direction the drone is facing. This is the sort of assistance that does not exist on an RC helicopter.
  • Drones enjoy wider appeal because of the many ways in which they can be put to practical use. RC helicopters are not as effective in many fields. The best example of this is in the field of photography and filming. Drones are far more stable and hence better suited than helicopters for this purpose. Most drones even come with stability hold to ease the process of taking focused shots.

Cons

  • The most annoying thing about drones is the short lifespan of their batteries. There are drones out there you literally have to charge for an hour in order to use for just a few minutes. Battery life is one of the strongest reasons why people save themselves the hassle in the long term by skipping the cheaper drones and splurging on a more expensive version.
  • Smaller drones are particularly affected by poor weather and strong winds. RC helicopters tend to cope a little better under windy conditions.

RC Helicopter

Pros

  • Many people believe RC helicopters are more fun to operate than drones are. The greater levels of control that is left to the pilot make them more exciting for some people.
  • RC helicopters will give you more for your buck as far as battery life is concerned. You can expect the battery of an RC helicopter to last longer than that of a similarly priced drone.

Cons

  • RC helicopter are far less durable than their drone counterparts, largely due to their dimension and the fact that drones are made with sturdier material. You better be careful with how you handle your helicopter during flight and landing to ensure it lasts long.
  • RC helicopters, unlike drones, don’t have much use outside of being toys. That said, there are a few much larger RC helicopters, powered by gasoline, being used for agricultural farming and industrial purposes in Japan, like the Yamaha RMax.

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