Definition – A drone refers to any aerial vehicle that receives remote commands from a pilot or relies on software for autonomous flight. Many drones display features like cameras for collecting visual data and propellers for stabilizing their flight patterns. Sectors like videography, search and rescue, agriculture and transportation have adopted drone technology.
Drones, sometimes referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), carry out tasks that range from the mundane to the ultra-dangerous. These robot-like aircrafts can be found rescuing avalanche victims as well as dropping off groceries at your doorstep — and almost everywhere in between.
Originally developed for the military and aerospace industries, drones have found their way into the mainstream because of the enhanced levels of safety and efficiency they bring. These robotic UAVs operate without a pilot on board and with different levels of autonomy.
A drone’s autonomy level can range from remotely piloted (a human controls its movements) to advanced autonomy, which means that it relies on a system of sensors and LiDAR detectors to calculate its movement.
Different drones are capable of traveling varying heights and distances. Very close-range drones usually have the ability to travel up to three miles and are mostly used by hobbyists. Close-range UAVs have a range of around 30 miles. Short-range drones travel up to 90 miles and are used primarily for espionage and intelligence gathering. Mid-range UAVs have a 400-mile distance range and could be used for intelligence gathering, scientific studies and meteorological research. The longest-range drones are called “endurance” UAVs and have the ability to go beyond the 400-mile range and up to 3,000 feet in the air.
Because drones can be controlled remotely and can be flown at varying distances and heights, they make perfect candidates to take on some of the toughest jobs in the world. They can be found assisting in a search for survivors after a hurricane, giving law enforcement and military an eye-in-the-sky during terrorist situations and advancing scientific research in some of the most extreme climates on the planet. Drones have even made their way into our homes and serve as entertainment for hobbyists and a vital tool for photographers.
What is drone technology? – Drones rely on a combination of hardware and software components to achieve successful takeoff, flight and landing. Drones are often equipped with rotors or fixed wings, sensors, navigation systems and gyroscopes (for stability), and are operated by ground control stations.
Many parts are involved behind the scenes to support the seamless operation of drones, so it’s important to become familiar with the unmanned or remote technology that makes up a drone’s system. From delivering commands to ensuring a manageable weight, pilots must take into account the various factors that make a drone suited for specific jobs. Among the many variables in play, some of the most critical components of a drone to consider are its ground control station (GCS), payload and data links.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
UAV definition – Another name for drones is unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which is an aircraft that doesn’t require a pilot to be physically onboard. UAVs are often separated into two categories — civilian and military. While civilian UAVs are used for package deliveries and recreation, military drones are used for reconnaissance missions and carrying out offensive strikes on enemy targets.
Drones are commonly referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), whereas the entire system that allows a drone to function is a UAS (Unmanned Aerial System.) The UAV is the heart of the UAS and possesses fixed wings or either a single or multi-rotary build for flight. Lighter-than-air UAVs, such as blimps and balloons, and small “Flapping Wing” UAVs also exist.
Ground Control Station (GCS)
Ground Control Stations are the central control unit that allows a UAV to fly and a UAS to operate. These stations can be as large as a desk with multiple views to as small as a handheld controller or even an app. The GCS can be user controlled or operated via satellites and is capable of controlling flight, controlling payload sensors, providing status readouts, mission planning and tethering the data link system.
Drones, UAVs specifically, come in a variety of sizes and are capable of carrying payloads of equally variable sized payloads. From life-saving medication to packages and more, drones provide an efficient method of delivery but must be built to handle the job at hand. Many drones are capable of rapid flight across oceans while others may be restricted to just a few thousand feet. Some drones may be capable of carrying hundreds of pounds while others can only manage under ten. It is crucial for operators to choose the right drone to help them complete the job at hand.
Data Links act as the transmission center that allow the drone to communicate with the ground operator while in flight. Typically utilizing radio frequency technology to communicate, the data link provides the operator with crucial data like remaining flight time, distance from the operator, distance from target, airspeed altitude and more. UAV control at 2.4 GHz for control and 5 GHz for video will provide the operator with approximately four miles of usability, while frequencies of 900 MHz for flight control and 1.3 GHz for video control can provide more than 20 miles of usability — adding to the list of reasons why pilots must use the right UAS for the task they mean to achieve.
Drones depend on a number of parts working together in order to complete tasks under changing conditions. While gyroscopes and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities make it easier to remotely control drones, GPS and LiDAR technology instill drones with a strong sense of direction. It takes all of these pieces to create a functioning drone that has the capacity to scan its surroundings while enduring a range of environments.
Many drones, typically multi-rotor drones, are considered Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) drones due to their ability to take off, fly, hover and land in a vertical position.
GNSS for Drones
Found in numerous types of drones, dual Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) like GPS and GLONASS drones are able to operate in both non-satellite and satellite modes, providing enhanced connectivity during operation.
GNSS allows Return to Home safety technology to function on a drone and can be activated through the ground station’s remote controller. This allows pilots to be informed as to whether there are enough drone GNSS satellites available for the drone to be flown independently, the current location of the drone compared to the pilot and the “home point” for the drone to return to. In addition to being controllable through the controller, Return to Home can also be automatically activated once the battery is low or when loss of contact between the drone and the controller occurs.
Gyroscopes in Drones
Gyroscopes consist of a wheel that can spin in any direction on its axis and are used in drones to measure the rate of rotation. Because a gyroscope focuses on the tilt of a drone, it becomes essential for providing stability. This way, drones can maintain their direction and deliver a smooth flying experience.
Drones come in a variety of types, each tailored to the unique demands of different industries. For instance, some people require lightweight drones to hold a camera for photography, while others need robust drones to transport heavy medical supplies. As a result, companies produce drones that come in four main types:
Single-Rotor Helicopter Drones
Single-rotor helicopters look exactly like tiny helicopters and can be gas or electric-powered. The single blade and ability to run on gas help its stability and fly for longer distances. These UAVs are usually used to transport heavier objects, including LiDAR systems, that can be used to survey land, research storms and map erosion caused by global warming.
Multi-rotor drones are usually some of the smallest and lightest drones on the market. They have limited distance, speed and height, but make the perfect flying vehicle for enthusiasts and aerial photographers. These drones can usually spend 20-30 minutes in the air carrying a lightweight payload, such as a camera.
Fixed-wing drones look like normal airplanes, where the wings provide the lift instead of rotors- making them very efficient. These drones usually use fuel instead of electricity, allowing them to glide in the air for more than 16 hours. Since these drones are usually much larger, and because of their design, they need to take off and land on runways just as airplanes do. Fixed-wing UAVs are used by the military to carry out strikes, by scientists to carry large amounts of equipment and even by nonprofits to deliver food and other goods to areas that are hard to reach.
Fixed-Wing Hybrid VTOL Drones
Fixed-wing hybrid VTOL drones are a blend of fixed-wing drones and rotor-based drones, featuring rotors that are attached to the wings. Due to its hybrid approach, this technology offers users the endurance of a fixed-wing design and the vertical flying capabilities of a rotor-focused design. Companies take advantage of this combination, relying on fixed-wing hybrid VTOL drones to further cut down on delivery times while offering a more versatile flight experience.