If you’re new to drones, you might be a little confused about what counts as a drone. The broadest definition includes anything that flies without an onboard pilot and is controlled, either directly or indirectly, by a human. This can mean anything from unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, used by the military to spy or deploy weapons, to radio-controlled aircraft flown by hobbyists for fun. That’s a lot of types of drones!
Writers on the topic have categorized drones by range, size, capabilities and method of lift. Method of lift is a good place to start because it has the biggest impact on what a drone can do. And since you’re probably interested in a type of drone you can use for recreational or professional purposes, this article won’t spend time on big military drones. Instead it will focus on drone types available to the public and all the cool things you can do with them.
Know Your Methods of Lift
There’s more than one way to get airborne, and different types of drones make use of most of them. If you have a mental image of a drone, it might be of a quadcopter, or quadrotor. These are the most popular, and there are good reasons for that. But drones come in many shapes and sizes, and which one is the best depends on what you want to do with it. Here’s a breakdown of the different drone types based on their method of lift.
1. Multirotor Drones
These drones use multiple propellers to fly. They can have as few as a three or as many as eight. You might find one with more, like NASA’s Greased Lightening GL-10, a 10-rotor drone that hovers like a helicopter but flies like a plane, but they aren’t common. While your typical battery-powered multirotor can’t fly as far or as fast as other types of drones, multirotors have the advantage of being very stable and easy to fly. They’re also easier to care for and less expensive than other types.
One of the limitations of multirotor drones for professional applications is that they’re battery-powered and propellers require a lot of power. If you try to fit it with a bigger battery, it ends up using the extra power to carry that heavy battery. The end result is most can’t fly for more than 30 minutes or carry more than 5 pounds. But brand new hybrid gas-to-electric multirotor drones are changing that. These types of drones can fly around 100 miles carrying 20 pounds, making them more practical for delivering goods.
2. Helicopter Drones
Also called single-rotor drones, these look and fly just like manned helicopters. They’re faster and more efficient than drones with multiple rotors, which means they can stay in the air for longer stretches of time. So why aren’t they more popular? Probably because they’re harder to fly, and that means easier to break. They tend to require a little more maintenance and cost more, too.
3. Fixed Wing Drones
Before everyone started talking about drones, there were radio-controlled airplanes. Also known as fixed-wing drones, these remotely operated planes can’t hover like rotor drones and, just like real airplanes, need a lot of space to take off and land. On the plus side, they can fly a lot faster and farther and for longer periods of time.
Some estimates suggest these types of drones have 10 times the endurance of multirotor drones. That’s one reason they’re still the most popular for surveying and other scientific applications. There’s also a community of hobbyists who fly them, although it requires more commitment than multirotor drones. Fixed-wing drones tend to be expensive, and they require a lot more skill to fly.
Drones that combine the vertical lift-off and landing of rotor drones with fixed-wing flight aren’t very common — yet. Besides NASA’s GL-10, the most famous one is Amazon’s delivery drone. You’re not as likely to run across one of these at your local hobby shop, but they’re around and will probably gain in popularity. Innovations in drone design are at a fever pitch right now, so don’t be surprised if you see newer, faster and more efficient types of drones coming out all the time.
Know Your Goals
The best drone depends entirely on what you want to accomplish and how much you can afford to spend. Method of lift is just one aspect of a drone. There’s also its size, how you fly it and what type of equipment it can carry. Here are some of the things you can do with a drone and the type of drone you should do it with.
1. Learn To Fly a Drone
If you’re interested in learning to fly drones, don’t go out and buy a $1000 drone kit, unless you can afford to crash $1000 into a cliff just to watch it burn. There are some terrific ready-to-fly, or RTF, drones on the market for around $100 or less. These types of drones can be flown right out of the box, no assembly required except maybe snapping the propellers into place. There are even a couple drones in this price range that come with cameras already installed.
Not only are they easier than more sophisticated drones that you have to assemble yourself, you won’t feel so bad about breaking them when you accidentally fly one into a tree. Once you’ve learned the basics of flying and maybe a few tricks, you can buy something bigger, more expensive and with cool capabilities.
2. Learn Tricks, Goof Off and Drive Your Pets Crazy
For as little as $15 you can own a quadcopter that you can park on the palm of your hand. Some of them are so small you can park two or three on your hand! Nano and microdrones are smaller than 250 mm (about 10 inches), cheap and incredibly fun. The tiniest ones can only be flown in the house, and none of them can fly for very long before being recharged, but who cares? Buy a few of these types of drones and you can have hours of fun tormenting your cat and learning how to do barrel rolls without feeling too bad if you crash and burn.
3. Race or Just Know How It Feels To Be a Bird
Even if you hadn’t heard of it, you had to guess drone racing was a thing, because of course, it is. But it’s even cooler than that, because racing drones use FPV, First-Person View. That means a tiny camera on the drone broadcasts a live view to a screen or pair of goggles worn by the pilot. You see what the drone sees. If you want a preview of just how insanely awesome that is, go watch some videos on YouTube.
These types of drones are built to be fast and maneuverable, so the cameras they carry usually aren’t good enough to make quality videos. They are, however, good enough to let you see what the world looks like from above and make you feel like a bird, or in some cases, a bee. You can spend a lot on racing drones, and the people who take it seriously end up building their own, which can run into real money. But for a couple hundred dollars, you can race a tiny drone around your house and see what the top of your head looks like.
4. Make a Movie
Remember that scene in Skyfall when James Bond is chasing a guy over the rooftops on a motorbike? Or how about pretty much any battle scene in Game of Thrones? Those were all shot by mounting a camera on a drone. In fact, drones are so good for filming that there’s an entire film festival devoted to drone footage: the New York City Drone Film Festival.
The types of drones used for serious filming need to be able to carry a heavy camera and stay in the air for a while, which can run into the thousands of dollars. However, even amateurs can have some fun and create beautiful footage for as little as $100. If you’re willing to spend a few hundred more, you can get image quality good enough that you’d have hard time telling the difference from more expensive setups.
5. Make Maps, Deliver Things and Other Serious Stuff
Most of the applications mentioned above fall partly or mostly into the recreational category, but drones are used for a whole host of professional applications as well. You can get drones with GPS capabilities for mapping, search and rescue, and delivery, as well as a host of other tasks that are just beginning to be explored. They’re even being used to carry critical medical supplies to remote locations that would be difficult to reach otherwise.
The term drone encompasses a vast array of flying robots with applications limited only by the imaginations of their users. Although they may seem like they’re from the future, many of the types of drones mentioned above are available to anyone who wants to buy them. Whether you’re looking to have fun, need aerial surveillance for your field work or want a way to spray your crops, there’s a drone type that can get the job done.