How Do Drones Work? How Do You Fly Them?

Last updated October 18th, 2019
A man holding a drone in a field

Whenever drones are mentioned you might think of a lot of things — anything from warfare to epic aerial photos. Drones are exciting; and that’s not only because they fly and give us an entirely new way of viewing our surroundings. In addition to that, they have the potential to usher in a lot of new possibilities in several fields.

For example, Amazon is already well on the way towards changing how our packages get delivered ever since they began testing the delivery of small packages by drones in the UK.

Dominos has been making similar strides, swooping in to deliver pizzas from the air in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, Zipline is pushing boundaries by delivering medicine in rural Rwanda with the help of drones.

Because, drones can reach where humans ordinarily can’t, they make possible what was previously impossible. Their ability to expand our view far beyond what we imagined is possible would make you think that they are an entirely new concept, as well. But the truth is, the idea of drones has been around for a really long time, and their use goes back decades.

But many people are wondering a simple question…how on earth do drones work?

How Do Drones Work?

Drone technology is advancing so rapidly that you can expect newer and better-equipped drones on the market every few months. So, it is difficult to talk about how drones work and their various parts without running the risk of being too general.

That said, the majority of the most popular drones out on the market today incorporate similar systems which we can talk about and explore going forward.

As you can imagine, unmanned aerial vehicle technology is only efficient—and as exciting—because of the many parts which come together to form a whole. There are parts that cater to aerodynamics, others that aid in overall remote control, and so on. And each of these has to be made of lightweight composite materials that support high-altitude flight and maneuverability.

The typical unmanned aircraft today is equipped with state-of-the-art tech like GPS, infrared scanners, and lasers, which are controlled using ground control systems. 

These parts come together to make up what are essentially the two parts of the unmanned aerial vehicle system which are the drone itself and the control system.

The nose of the drone is where all the sensors and parts to do with navigation are located, and the rest of the body is comprised of the other technological systems. All these parts are made of highly complex devices and composites specially designed to deal with the resulting vibration from decreasing the sound produced by drones.

As far as body design is concerned, drones and manned aircrafts differ mainly due to the fact that drones leave no allowance for a cockpit. The cockpit is usually replaced with a camera, video link software, and radio-transmission receptors to communicate with ground control.

For power supply, the small consumer devices usually rely on lithium-polymer batteries, whereas the larger devices (like the military devices) use airplane engines. The use of electric devices should raise your eyebrows, since the energy supply or density of lithium-polymer batteries are less than that of gasoline. But this works well because drones are lighter, quieter aircrafts, requiring far less energy than conventional manned aircrafts and larger drones. Overheating is avoided with the use of battery elimination circuitry which centralizes power distribution across the device to one battery and, and sometimes, a microcontroller unit.

On the computing side, drones have kept up with the latest advances in the field. From the analog controls of the past, device computers have evolved to use microcontrollers, system-on-a-chip, and even single board computers.

A micro controller is a small computer on a single metal-oxide semiconductor integrated circuit chip. They are less advanced than systems-on-a-chip, which could include a microcontroller as only one of its parts. 

A system-on-a-chip is integrated system that includes all the components of a computer into it. It is common to find these with a central processing unit, secondary memory, and input/output ports on a single chip the size of a large coin

A single board computer is a complete computer built on a single circuit board, with memory, input/output ports, microprocessors, and other features needed for a functional computer.

Depending on which of these is used, they form what is known as the flight controller of the drone.

For direction and motion, drones use position and movement sensors to provide relevant information about the aircraft’s state. Exteroceptive sensors deal with external measurements like distance, while exproprioceptive sensors correlate internal and external states.

Other sensors which are considered non-cooperative are able to autonomously detect targets, which is useful in the detection and avoidance of collisions.

Actuators control the speed and movement of the drones, and include digital electronic speed controllers which control the revs-per-minute of the drone’s motor. Their design and functioning depends heavily on end towards which the drone is used and they could be linked to anything including speakers, LEDs, and weapons.

And the juice that makes all these components work in real-time, in reaction to changing sensor data, is the software or flight stack or autopilot, as some call it.

Several unmanned aerial vehicle software exist and include Orcos-Robotic Operating System or DDS-ROS 2.0, Nuttx, Premptive-RT Linux, Raspberry Pis Beagle Beards, and so on.

How to Fly A Drone

Once you get your very own drone, the first thing you want to get acquainted with is the transmitter or controller. This handheld device allows you pilot and control the flight pattern of your drone.

Now, we know that most drone manufacturers come with their own quirks and controls in order to stand out from their competitors. But there are enough controls that are universal enough for us to talk about in this mini guide to drones:

Right Stick: The right stick controls roll and pitch. That means you can use it to move your drone forwards, backwards, upwards, and downwards.

Left Stick: The left stick controls yaw and throttle. That means it gives you control of clockwise and counterclockwise movement, as well as adjusts the height at which your drone is flying.

Trim Buttons: Trim buttons allow you to “balance out” the range of the other controls mentioned above. When you first throttle your drone for the first time to get it off the ground, you may realize it dancing around in one direction (or several). No need to panic; that just means some controls need to be trimmed or balanced out.

It may take some practice to get used to all the different nuances that come with flying a drone, so choose a big open practice space to begin with.

Commercial drones can rightly be described as lawn mowers with wings. They can be dangerous in unpracticed or careless hands, so here are a few pointers to help minimize risk:

  • If you are about to crash into an obstacle, turn the throttle down to zero to avoid potentially destroying your drone device, injuring someone, or injuring yourself.
  • Keep your fingers away from the drone’s propellers when they are moving. You want to keep your fingers for future flights.
  • Double-check to make sure you have unplugged the drone’s battery before doing any work on it. You don’t want to have your drone propellers coming on while you are handling it. 
  • While open spaces are best for practice, if you wish to practice in closed spaces as a beginner, make sure you tie your drone down or surround it with a cage for safety.

And with that you are set to take for the skies. Whatever nuances exist for the drone or unmanned aerial vehicle you use will be gotten with practice. But by memorizing the universal controls and keeping the safety precautions in mind, you should become an ace in no time.

What the Future Holds for Drones

Drones have come a long way since they were first used. And their applications can right be described as limited only by our imagination and fascination with flight. For as long as we keep looking to the skies envying the birds, their ease of navigation and obliviousness to traffic jams, you can be sure drones will be in use.

The Federal aviation authority (FAA) expects 4.3 million hobbyist drones will be sold in 2020. And that number is expected to rise fast going forward.

As can be expected, regulation has already been introduced to ensure the safety of those of us on the ground in the wake of this drone revolution. For example the FAA does prohibit the use of drones that weight more than 55 pounds for commercial purposes. Regulation, tech, and imagination are going chart the way forward for drones.

But it promises to be an exciting time as advances continue being made across the board. 

Maybe one day soon you won’t bat an eye as you collect a package delivered by a drone as you leave towards the terminal for unmanned air taxis to fly off to work. 

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