What is a Drone?

Last updated October 18th, 2019

When you think of drones, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

A bit of fun? A dangerous piece of equipment? Some way for the government to spy on you?

While those things are entirely possible, drones are much more than that. It’s an exciting technology that has tons of potential to shape our future.

But first, let’s answer the most important question right off the bat…

What is a drone?

A drone is nothing more than an aerial vehicle that is operated without a human pilot on-board. Hence, why they are also called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV. 

They were initially developed as a way to go to places deemed too dangerous or costly for a human to go, such as surveying enemy territory or going into the thick of battle. In fact, the military was the first original user of drone tech.

UAVs are controlled remotely from the ground, either by a human pilot or through a computer guidance system. Also, most drones have a built-in level of autonomy, acting independently in certain situations. For example, it can stabilize itself during flight or reroute to a pre-programmed destination if things were to go wrong.

How drones work completely varies depending on the type of drone you have and the reason you’re using it.

Drones come in a variety of sizes, from car-sized vehicles to some only as large as the palm of your hand. Regardless, they are always built using lightweight materials to increase their agility and maneuverability. 

Most drones are equipped with some of the most advanced tech known to man, depending on their purpose. Consumer drones usually have nothing more than a camera, which serves as the “eyes” for the controllers down on the ground. More advanced drones come equipped with GPS, infrared lasers, and even weapon systems.

Drones draw power from a variety of energy sources. The larger ones use airplane fuel, which has the benefit of providing ample power for long-distance flights. Smaller consumer-type drones use batteries or other electric cells. Lithium is the preferred type, for its efficiency and capability of being recharged multiple times.

A Short History of Drones

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles goes back to July 1849. That was when Austria used a balloon carrier in an aerial attack on Venice in the first offensive use of air power in naval aviation.

About 200 incendiary balloons were launched that day. Each balloon carried a 24-30 pound bomb that was to be dropped with a time fuse once they were over the city.

Fortunately for the Venetians, the technology was sketchy at best and the winds got in the way, causing most of them to miss their target. 

It was a terrifying debut for fully autonomous vehicles flying requiring no human intervention at all.

For the more popular remotely controlled drones we know and love today, we have Nikola Tesla to thank for demonstrating “teleautomation”, in 1898, by remotely controlling a boat over radio waves.

For decades afterwards, drones were used primarily for warfare and other military uses, for good reason. They were small and nimble, perfect for scouting hostile territory without being detected. They were cheap to create and easily replaceable once they got shot down. They could easily carry bombs that allowed them to “search and destroy” targets in one single, precise strike.

Notable cases of drones during this era include the “Kettering Bug”, a WWI era automated missile, and The Queen Bee, the first reusable unmanned aerial vehicle which the British military used in the 1930s for military target practice.

But like many cool things with a potential for many uses—think, the internet and Play Doh—drones eventually entered popular imagination and mainstream use.

By the late 2000s, the idea of using phones to create an autopilot system for drone control was beginning to take root among remote-controlled flying enthusiasts. 

Some of these enthusiasts started rigging their phones to planes and piloting them with each other. Others got a little more sophisticated and bought the individual parts needed for remote control like an accelerometer for measuring movement, a gyroscope for directional orientation, and a tiny processor to run things. They took all these and built it straight into the vehicle.

It was about time too, because with the rapid advance of phones during that period, these parts were becoming ever more pocket-friendly and battery-efficient. Anyone with a basic grasp of coding could buy their own kit and take to the skies.

Fast forward to today, and there are several companies looking to claim a spot in what has become a multi-billion dollar opportunity in the consumer drone space.

Far from the flimsy balloons launched by the Austrians in a daring raid and the makeshift contraptions of the late 2000s, drones have evolved highly capable machines. Drones today can now stay steady in strong winds and automatically avoid obstacles, for example. They can fly farther and higher for longer, and if you want you desire you can get a drone with a 4K camera and the ability to fly for over 4 miles for a four-figure price.

Types of Drones

Drones come in a variety of shapes and configurations, which mostly depends on the flight systems they use. They come in roughly four types:

Single Rotor

Single rotor drones have one main rotor blade that generates upward thrust powerful enough to lift it. They also have a smaller rotor near the tail section, to control heading and provide balance.

In a way, single rotor drones are not that different from how a helicopter works.

This type of drone gives more lifting power than any other kind. They excel at sustained forward flight over long distances. They are capable of carrying heavy loads while hovering over an area at the same time.

Single rotor drones are not as common as the other types, due to their cost and complexity. Their large rotors also pose a more significant injury risk and need more maintenance. They, therefore, require considerable skill and expertise to operate successfully, since they are not as stable while in the air.

Multi-Rotor

Multi-rotors are one of the most common types of drones and can be seen in almost every consumer model. They feature anywhere from three rotors (called tricopters), and up to eight (called octocopters).

The standard in consumer drones, however, is the four-rotor configuration, also called a quadcopter.

A multi rotor’s biggest advantage is stability. Thanks to their numerous rotor blades, it’s quite easy to control and steady this type of drone. Hence, it is the prime choice of most professional photographers and videographers.

However, for a multi-rotor to achieve stability and economy, it has to sacrifice one thing: power. This type of drone is capable of limited flight times of only around 30 minutes, and can only carry very minimal loads. This makes them suitable for only short bursts of flight at low altitudes.

Multi-rotors are one of the most economical to manufacture, making them more accessible to consumers. Because of this, multi-rotors single-handedly started the consumer drone market, which now outnumbers military drones by a wide margin.

Multi-rotors can be further divided into:

  • Nano Copters

The cheapest type of drone is typically small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. They are straightforward to fly and maneuver; hence, most of them are aimed at beginners wanting to learn how to control a drone.

  • Mid-sized Drones

A step up over nano copters, mid-sized or hobby drones have bigger propellers and a larger frame, making them capable of outdoor operation. Most are equipped with a low-resolution camera and is great for those wanting to dabble in aerial photography. 

  • Professional Drones

These are the drones you see when you go to a live event or wedding. They are usually used by professional photographers for doing “impossible” aerial shots. Professional drones offer longer flight times, better stability, and advanced features like obstacle avoidance.

They’re pretty expensive, however, easily costing $1,000 or more. Hence, only the most serious pros have them.

  • Racing Drones

Racing drones are specialized drones that prize speed over anything else. Unlike a hobbyist drone that focused on upward lift and stability, a racing drone places all of its energy into achieving forward thrust. Just like a race car.

Most racing drones have cameras equipped in their front, giving “racers” a realistic first point of view, just as if they were in the cockpit themselves. 

Fixed Wing

Fixed wing drones are equipped with wings and use the same aerodynamic principles of an airplane to achieve lift. They are a much more efficient way to fly versus using rotors.

This type of drone is the one mostly used by the military. The most famous example of this is the feared Predator drone. They are capable of long-distance flight over extended periods, sometimes being airborne up to 12-15 hours at a time. They are mostly powered with airplane-grade fuel.

Unfortunately, fixed wing drones also inherit the same problems an airplane has. Launching and landing one requires either an airstrip or catapult, both of which need lots of space. They are also unable to hover over an area as a rotor drone can.

Fixed wing drones are also costlier to maintain and more difficult to control, hence why they are mostly reserved for military or scientific applications.

Fixed Wing Hybrids

An innovation in drone technology, fixed wing hybrids attempt to combine the best of both worlds. It takes the flight endurance of a fixed wing, with the ease of launching and hovering of a rotor drone.

There are a lot of possible configurations to achieve this, some more successful than others. A lot of hybrids are as simple as fixed wing drones with a single rotor attached for a vertical lift. Others are like rockets, launching vertically with rotors before stabilizing horizontally with their wings.

Fixed wing hybrids are still currently in the very early stages of development, but is expected to make great strides in the coming years.

What are the uses of drones?

Drones have come a long way from being just used for spying and warfare. They now have a lot of exciting new applications in a variety of fields, from business to science. 

Recreational / Consumer

Consumers comprise the most significant chunk of drone users in the world, with over a million units sold in 2015 alone. The appeal is there: drones are super fun to fly! They also open up brand new possibilities, such as taking “impossible” photos or unique racing experiences.

Photography

Ever seen those breathtaking but seemingly impossible photos and wondered, “how did they do that??”

Well, you have drones to thank for that!

Photographers are probably the most widespread users and early adopters of drone technology. Most professionals nowadays will almost always have a drone on hand to take brand new angles never thought possible.

This has, of course, spread to the amateur photography level. With drones becoming more affordable than ever, regular folks now have access to a tool that can help them take stunning photos, just like the pros do.

Videography is also a great venue to use drones. Everyone can now achieve Hollywood-style fly-bys or fluid tracking shots with the use of this new technology. Forget shaky, handheld video cams! Today’s family vacation videos look more like big-budget movies than anything else.

Hobbyists

Flying a drone is akin to flying a kite – it’s loads of fun! Most of the lower cost, entry-level drones are aimed at casual consumers who just want the thrill of flying them outdoors. 

This has, however, raised the issue of privacy and surveillance with drone users. That’s why some cities have stringent laws that heavily restrict where you can fly a drone. Some might require you to have a permit with local authorities.

Drone Racing

When drones came into the scene, everyone knew it would only be a matter of time until someone does a sport out of it. And lo and behold, drone racing was born.

Drones provide an exhilarating new way to race, without ever endangering the drivers themselves. And with a first-person view, they are never away from all the action!

Drone racing is now a growing sport with an ever-expanding fanbase. It even has its own governing body, the Drone Racing League, that oversees tournaments worldwide.

Commercial / Business

With the trend of automation among businesses nowadays, it’s no wonder a lot of them turn to drone technology. An army of flying workers that can reach customers faster and cheaper than any human can? That’s a recipe for success right there!

Retail Delivery

Imagine a future where the things you buy online will be delivered to you, almost instantly, via a drone. Well, that picture is much, much closer than you think.

Amazon, ever the innovator, is launching a service in 2019 called Amazon Prime Air. With it, Amazon shoppers can get their items delivered to them in as fast as 30 minutes, using an army of autonomous drones. Talk about fast service!

Pretty soon, we’ll be seeing pizzas, mail, and packages delivered to us faster than you can click on “Checkout.” Exciting times indeed for online shoppers!

Onsite Inspections

Some industries, such as mining and oil, frequently work in hazardous areas. Workers are usually put at severe risk when repairs or inspections need to be done.

Drones are an economical way of replacing humans in doing these dangerous tasks. Instead of having someone climb tall rigs or inspect pipes in remote areas, why not just send a drone instead? They’re much more expendable, plus they can easily reach places humans usually can’t

Scientific Exploration

Despite living on this planet for thousands of years, there are still lots of uncharted areas that are unknown to us humans. This is due to a combination of factors that make it difficult for us to explore them on our own.

Drones can change all that. We can now send UAVs to scout remote islands or mountains that would take months and money to climb. Besides, we can load drones with advanced surveying equipment to gather useful data that would be otherwise impossible for a human to do.

Some wildlife conservationists also use drones to frequently monitor animal life in a particular area, without disturbing their natural habitat.

Military and Law Enforcement

The military employs some of the most advanced drones ever to grace the modern world. Today’s battlefields are some of the most dangerous, a place where drones are most beneficial.

Drones are frequently used for reconnaissance missions, scouting enemy territory, and collecting crucial intelligence. On occasion, they’re also used as offensive weapons, without the risk of loss of human soldiers. The Predator drone, with its payload of Hellfire missiles, are some of the most feared in the US military’s arsenal.

Law enforcement can also use drones as a protective tool. They can use it to scout dangerous areas, search wanted criminals, or even protect national borders from smugglers.

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