Drones are some of the most cutting-edge technology available to the average person. Drones are used in everything from private home use to land surveying, military applications, Hollywood filming, and police investigations. But how do drones work, and what kind of tech is behind these amazing technological marvels?
How Do Drones Work?
One of the challenges in describing the tech behind drones and understanding the answer to the question "how do drones work" is dealing with the constant raft of changes in tech. The tech behind drones advances every year. Military professionals are constantly working to provide the armed forces with more powerful drones that can go further, see more, and carry heavier loads.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are regularly evaluating the drones they sell to see who is buying, why, and how they can improve their stock. Crowd-funding platforms are set up regularly by eager individuals and small groups looking to improve on their drones. But none of these advancements change the fundamental basics of what a drone is and how it works.
There are two main parts to a drone. The first is the drone itself, and the second is the controller that tells the drone what to do. The drone itself is made of the lightest possible composite materials, a motor, a battery, and electronics known as remote ground systems (GSC) that allow the device to communicate with the controller via an app or a handheld device.
The drone must be made of light composite components for two reasons. First, the heavier the drone, the shorter the battery life. Heavy drones mean reduced distances, slower speeds, and frustrating waits while batteries recharge. The second reason for composite materials is that they reduce vibration. Vibration is a drone killer. The drone contains highly sensitive GSC and navigational systems, and these can suffer when the drone vibrates too hard. Vibrations can also cause unwanted noise, which may interfere with video recording.
Extras and Controls
Nearly all modern drones also come equipped with extras, or at least the possibility of add-ons. These include things like infrared cameras, video cameras, GPS tech, or cargo holds. Some drones can be controlled via a simple mobile or computer app. Others require sophisticated joystick control systems. Still, others come with hand stick controllers much like you would find on older remote controlled cars or boats.
Types and Sizes
There are many types of drones in nearly all sizes imaginable. The biggest drones are reserved for military use and are capable of tracking and firing at enemies as well as facilitating communication with friendly forces. You can ask "how do drones work?" when they are working for military missions, but you would be unlikely to get an answer as much of this information is classified.
Other large drones may be used for surveying or by the police. Smaller drones, some of which are also known as quadcopters, are used for filming and by individuals for work and for fun. Some are so small that they can launch and land in the palm of a human hand.
How Do Drones Work? What's Inside
To understand the answer to the question "how do drones work?" it's important to learn some specifics about the technology behind these flying machines.
Most drones, especially the latest models, are equipped with GPS systems, though they can fly both with and without these. When the drone activates, one of the first things it does is to communicate with satellites to determine its own position. It does this by reaching out to more than one satellite. By plotting the calls from several satellites, the drone can pinpoint its own location. At that point, the drone will tell the user it is ready to fly or ready to “return home” if the drone has this feature.
Drones are delicate machines, and if a drone hits something it is highly likely the drone will be the thing that breaks. That's why good drones have collision avoidance systems. These systems are capable of scanning the surroundings. These scans are quickly fed into software that generates a 3D image. The drone then uses this image to avoid objects. The collision avoidance systems typically use infrared vision, ultrasonic sound, a vision sensor, lidar, and time-of-flight records to build this 3D image.
Motors and Propellors
The drone motor takes energy from the battery and sends it to the propellors, which spin to provide lift and propulsion to the drone. Quadcopter drones use two different sets of propellers. One pair moves clockwise and the other counterclockwise. The motor and the propellers are both controlled by electronic speed controllers as the controllers receive data commands from the flight controller manipulated by the user.
Most drones also have an internal compass that allows it to determine a basic direction and position even if the drone loses communication with a satellite or with the user. To use the internal compass properly, users have to calibrate the compass by setting a drone home point. The drone will return to this home point if something goes wrong: for example, if it loses signal with the controller or satellites.
The gyro gives the drone stability. A gyro works in conjunction with internal measurement unit (IMU) tech that is capable of detecting how fast the drone is moving and what rotational attitude the drone is at. Rotational attitudes include the drone's roll, pitch, and yaw. The IMU then sends this information to the gyroscope which uses the data to keep the drone stable and level at all times. The IMU and the gyro must be lightening-fast in order to help the drone deal with breezes and sudden demands from the user.
It is impossible to fully understand "how do drones work?" without appreciating what the drone's lights are telling you. The flight indicators are a series of LED lights, usually in green, red, and yellow, that shows the status of the drone and which part is the front. The front LED lights allow pilots to see from the ground where their drone is pointing.
The other lights are specific to each drone, and operators will need to learn how their specific drone works in order to use the drone effectively. Certain lights may indicate that the drone needs a firmware update while others could mean the battery is low or that there is a flight problem.
For those wondering "how do drones work?" it is important to understand that range determines how far and how high you can fly. It's crucial to have as wide a range as possible on a drone. The range extender works wirelessly on the 2.4 GHz frequency to extend the range of communication between the drone and the controller or app whenever there is plenty of open space. In some cases, it's possible to add a range extender to an older drone to allow for better performance.
Optional Drone Tech
Drone technology is advancing quickly, and as it does drones are getting constant upgrades that make them more reliable, more stable, and able to fly much longer.
Here are some of the newest drone tech features to watch out for:
No-Fly Zone Tech
Because of concerns about drones interfering with planes or flying over areas that need to stay private, modern drones are equipped with “no-fly zone” capabilities that will not allow the drone to enter restricted space. These zones can be updated at any time, and whenever the drone connects to the internet to update software it will also get an update on no-fly zone areas.
FPV Live Video Transmission
First Person View, or FVP, video comes from cameras mounted on the drone that send live video directly to the drone's user. Instead of flying the drone by looking up at it, the user flies the drone by “seeing what it sees,” so to speak. The value of FPV technology is that it allows operators to fly drones in places they otherwise could not be flown. Drone operators can fly their drones through dense forests, for example, or among buildings. It's also easier to fly drones indoors with FPV transmission.
Controlling a Drone
How does a drone work? Drones can work entirely through direct control of the user, semi-autonomously, or even entirely autonomously depending on their tech. There's no single answer to the question “how does a drone work?” but there are several answers.
The originally controlled drones used manual controls similar to a video game experience. While it's still possible to get these types of drone controllers, it is becoming ever more popular to use mobile devices and other computer apps to control drones.
If you're wondering how a drone works when it's fully controlled, it does so by creating a unique wi-fi hotspot so the drone and its app can communicate privately. Most of these apps feature a joystick control design reminiscent of the older style of controller. These controls can be tweaked in whatever way the user prefers, which means the answer to "how do drones work?" can in some ways be: "however you want them to."
Drone tech developers are currently working on perfecting gesture control, which is highly popular with other mobile apps. When these are fully implemented, it will be possible to control the drone by tilting a device and swiping.
The smarter the drone, the more value it has to the user. A smart drone capable of some autonomous movement is not so easily lost, nor is it necessary for the pilot to be especially skilled.
How do drones work when they're semi-autonomous? It still needs some pilot control and guidance, but it is capable of getting itself out of emergency situations if the operator simply plots points on a Google map. The drone then reads these plots and uses it to return to the correct flight path. Semi-autonomous drones are great for users who need to have their attention freed up to deal with other things like monitoring the camera, choosing a good shot, and focusing.
Fully Autonomous Drones
The term “fully autonomous” is something of a misnomer, as no drone is capable of doing everything completely by itself. However, the best drones are able to engage in higher autonomy flight, which under certain situations is essential fully autonomous.
These drones can learn where they're supposed to fly, figure out how to get to the next point, and even plan and execute missions. Some of these drones use radio photogrammetry to do this. Radio photogrammetry works by taking thousands of photos in just a moment, which are collated to show the drone where to go and the obstacles it must overcome.
Other such drones use 3D technology. The user can draw the entire flight path using a tablet or phone and the drone will follow this path, automatically navigating obstacles as it needs to.
Some drones work using 'follow me' technology. If a drone has this type of tech, it is equipped with a special camera that can be tethered to you via your GPS enabled mobile device. How do drones work if they have 'follow me' technology? They use their camera to follow the user around, which makes these the perfect choice if you need to film what you're doing and be sure that all the action is being captured.
In some cases, the 'follow me' technology works using a literal tether. The drone is physically connected to your device and can zoom out to the end of the tether to take pictures or video. In some cases, the tether can also act as a charging cable, which greatly increases the amount of time the user can get out of the drone.
Drone Control Terminology
Rolling a drone is literally just that: rolling it either to the left or right by pushing the control stick or virtual joystick right or left.
The pitch moves your drone forward or backward. Moving forward, the drone also tilts down. Moving backward, it tilts up. These maneuvers are done by pushing the right stick forward or back.
This is essentially the speed of your drone. Pushing the left stick forward speeds it up; pulling it back slows the drone down.
The trim is all about keeping the drone level and balanced. Sometimes your drone's gyroscope will need to be recalibrated so the drone can stay on balance. Most remotes feature buttons that allow you to re-set the trim.
The yaw is the rotation of the drone either left or right. Pushing the drone's left control stick to the left or the right will cause it to turn in the respective direction.
When you read or hear a reference to the aileron, this is talking about the right stick controller as it relates to controlling the roll.
The elevator may come up in reference to the question “how do drones work?” Again, this refers to the right stick, but this time as it relates to controlling the drone's pitch.
The rudder is another term for the left control stick, but only as it relates to controlling the drone's yaw.
Drone Maneuvering Terms
In addition to the directions and maneuvers mentioned above, such as pitch and yaw, you may also run across these terms:
This refers to keeping the drone in the same position in the air for an extended period. You can hover using your drone's throttle.
This refers to a drone turn that moves clockwise or counterclockwise consistently as the drone turns.
This term is fairly self-explanatory. It simply speaks of a drone flying in a pattern that resembles the number 8.
Drone Flight Mode Terms
When a drone is in fully manual mode, it will not take control of itself. It will depend on the user to keep it level and on track. With many drones, manual mode is activated any time you tilt the drone.
This mode makes the drone return to a predetermined position any time all the sticks are centered on the control. The drone uses its GPS system to future out where it needs to be.
This is quite similar to the GPS hold, only instead of returning to a pre-determined spot, the drone will simply level out and hold where it is when the sticks are centered.
Getting the Most Out of Your Drone
If you have a drone, there are some things you can do to ensure you get the most enjoyment out of it.
Be Conscious of Power
You only have so much power on your drone. The battery is usually the most limiting element. Learn how much flight time and video capability your battery gives you. Plan your usage sensibly and consider investing in some backup batteries to extend each flying session.
Consider Your Peripherals
LCD screens are amazing, but they also eat up battery power like a hungry fat kid chowing down on candy bars after school. You may be able to get as much as double the battery life out of your drone if you ditch the hungry peripherals.
Upgrade Your Propellers
The propellers dictate how fast and how high your drone can fly. The bigger the propellers, the faster you get to go. A larger propeller, to a point, means more performance for less battery effort. The lighter the material the propeller is made from, the better.
Choose Your Flight Time
If you fly when it's really windy or cold, you will need to expect inferior performance out of your drone. The more wind it has to battle, the faster the battery life will drain. Cold also drains battery life very quickly.
How do drones work? They use a complicated set of technologies to take off, navigate around obstacles, and even get home when they're in trouble. You can fly your drone most effectively when you know what's in it, what terminology goes with it, and the tips that will help you get the most from your machine.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay