Drones: How They Work

At their simplest, drones are defined as unmanned aircraft, which are used for a variety of purposes by the military, police, firefighters, civilian sectors and also hobbyists like you and me.

While some very advanced drones are capable of having their missions completely programmed into their systems, the vast majority are still reliant on us, human pilots, who control the drone from a remote location via a remote control.

Hobby drones rarely get farther than some 400 feet from their pilot, while military pilots can control their special drones from thousands of miles away. It’s actually pretty interesting to think about how drones work.

Pilots have some sort of controller which communicates with their drone via radio waves. These controllers are vital for the launching, landing, and navigation of drones. The type of controller varies. It can be a device that looks similar to a game-pad, but since Wi-Fi is a type of radio wave, even smartphones and tablets can be used to control drones nowadays.

Drone Controller

Autonomy

Even though they do require human pilots, many drones have built in features that allow them a certain level of autonomy. This gives them the ability to do such things as fly, hover, and navigate their way home without any input of a pilot whatsoever. They are able to keep themselves aloft and navigating without continuous human input due to such technologies as gyroscopes, which allow the drone to collect sensory data from its environment.

The altimeters that most drones are equipped with tell the drone what height it is at. If the pilot commands it to hover, it can therefore read its position relative to the earth and stay right there automatically.

Many drones are also equipped with a GPS chip that relays its real-time position to the pilot, but is also able to record its starting position and return “home” unassisted, should the radio connection between pilot and drone be cut off for any reason or should the pilot want it so.

Design

The design of the drone is also important to the function of the drone.

Fixed-wing drones, the ones that look like miniature air planes, can glide for some time without power, unlike any multirotor aircraft. They can also carry somewhat heavier loads and fly farther away. They are also more power-efficient, and so are more suited for long-distance missions. These drones work on the same basic principles of aerodynamics as full-scale planes.

 

Fixed Wing Drone

Multirotor aircraft, on the other hand, have multiple rotors that provide thrust and therefore liftoff and hovering capabilities.

They are more maneuverable than their fixed-wing counterparts, and since they have multiple rotors keeping them aloft they are more secure in the air if one rotor is damaged or loses power.

Multirotor drones, especially quadcopters, are very popular for photography and video filming, because of their stability and maneuverability. These rotor-based drones lift off and land on the basic principles that are used in helicopter designs.

Some examples would be DJI Mavic Air, DJI Mavic Pro Drone, DJI Phantom 4, Hover Camera Passport Selfie Drone and many others.

First Person View (FPV)

Some drones are also equipped with cameras to provide a FPV (first person view) for the pilot. This means that the image from the drone’s camera is streamed live to a viewing device that the pilot is controlling, like the DJI Controller on the picture below.

This allows the pilot to have a better view of what obstacles the drone is facing, as he is actually seeing what the drone sees. In some situations, it also allows the pilot to fly their drone when it is far out of the pilot’s sight, although in hobbyist drone pilots this is strongly advised against.

 

DJI Spark Controller

 

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