Drones have come a long way since their original conception. Though first created by the military, mostly for stealth and target practise, their technology has become more accessible in recent times. Just in the past few years alone they have become extremely popular for consumer use and have been modified heavily to serve a number of different applications.
From simple remote controlled toys to high soaring movie camera holders to elegant birdlike art pieces, flying drones have become so varied and unique that several different categories are used to organize them. Generally, drone types fall into five categories–size, application, number of rotors, winged, and ornithopters–and are further separated and classified from there.
Quick Breakdown Of The Most Common Airborne Drone Types
- Y6 / X8
- Fixed Wing Plane
Drones by Size
The first basic way of categorizing drones is by their size. Though a relatively broad set of labels, organizing drones in this way can help narrow down detailed specifications for potential buyers. To determine the official size of a drone, the frame and motors are measured instead of the space that the wings or rotors take up. This is usually done in millimeters due to their small size and to allow custom designers to have more accurate measurements, though larger drones have bigger units of measurement. The most common size classes are:
-Nano: The smallest types of drones available, nano drones are generally small enough to fit into the palm of the hand. Usually they sit in at about 5-100mm, but some engineers have made a model that’s under 2mm and are working to create even smaller versions. These tiny drones are used commonly as toys for beginners as their light weight and simple controls make them easy to fly. They can also be helpful in exploring small areas or entering a place stealthily.
-Mini: Small but not tiny, mini drones measure in at around 100-350mm, or 4-12 inches. At this size, small cameras, radars, and other additions can be included without weighing the machine down or disrupting its flight capabilities. Mini drones are also good toys for beginners due to their simple controls and compact durability.
-Medium Sized -350-600mm: At around 1-2 feet, most drones fall into this category. Larger cameras, such as the extremely popular DJI Phantom camera, and other heavier equipment can be attached to drones of this size and they can travel further away from their remote controls. These drones are also the most popular size for racing, as they are large enough to be easily tracked and require a fair amount of skill to fly well.
-Large: Most drones over two feet are used for heavy lifting jobs. Powerful motors and sturdy frames are engineered to be able to carry large weights for extended periods of time. Some drones can lift up to 30kgs at a time, and others can carry lighter amounts for an hour or longer. They are helpful for moving heavy loads over difficult terrain that humans can’t enter, to send cargo over long distances without worrying about traffic, or to work alongside humans to speed up work.
Perhaps the most common types of drones, rotor drones use spinning propellers to achieve lift and momentum. Most are multirotor drones, classified by the use of more than two rotors, but recently drones that only use one propeller have been invented. These fly similar to helicopters, but instead of using variable pitch rotors for control, they use fixed-pitch blades. Speed, thrust, and torque is controlled separately for each rotor, allowing the pilot to make fine changes mid flight. They can also hover in one spot for extended periods of time. This ease of control makes multicopters popular for both beginners just learning to fly and experts that want fine precision and accuracy.
As the most popular of drone types, the number of custom configurations within each category is very large, but they are generally organized based on the number of rotors they have. The usual categories are:
-Monocopters: With only one rotor, monocopters are new additions to the drone family. Mostly they are single airfoils with one motor at the end. They generate lift and speed by spinning rapidly, and are usually built by hobby flight enthusiasts as an engineering challenge. Although some manufactures are developing commercial monocopters due to their super compact size and portability.
-Tricopters: Three rotors in a triangle shape help tricopters stay balanced and level during flight. One propeller is usually vectored, allowing it to steer the aircraft. Tricopters, if made correctly, are more efficient in terms of battery life than quadcopters. They are also relatively cheaper as they need less materials and parts.
-Quadcopters: Quadcopters are the most common kind of drone with four being a safe and stable but still relatively inexpensive amount of propellers. They have a moderate amount of power and stability and can safely land even if one rotor dies in midair.-Hexacopters: With six propellers and motors, hexacopters are that much more stable than quadcopters. They can lift higher, travel further, and steer with more precision. Depending on the positioning of lost motors, they can even lose up to half of their propellers and still make a safe landing.
-Octocopter: Octocopters are the biggest of the bunch with eight separate sets of propellers and motors. Though their battery life drains quickly, they have the most power and speed. They can hold heavy loads, be controlled with nuance and agility, and are extremely safe and reliable when landing after being damaged.Y6: A Y6 is a tricopter that has six motors. Three are on top of the frame and three are below, giving it a more compact, sturdy appearance and feel.
–X8: Similar to Y6s, X8 models are a kind of quadcopter that has eight motors–four on top and four on bottom. This gives it around the same power as an octocopter, but in a much smaller size and footprint. This allows for easier transport and maneuverability through the sky. They are also more reliable in the event of a motor failure. Additionally they are more resilient in windy conditions.
Winged Drones In contrast to multicopter drones, many drones use stationary wings to fly. These function more like airplanes, with carefully shaped wings that generate lift and keep the machine in the air. Though they use less energy and can last longer than multicopters, they can be harder to control, can’t hover in place, and usually cost more. Winged drones are categorized by the kinds of wings they have
-Plane: Before the motor and propellor model became mainstream, more plane like drones were common. They look and act similar to real planes, with longer, angled wings that utilize air pressure to lift off of the ground and stay level in the air. This lets them use much less energy than rotor drones, making them ideal for longer flights.
-Fixed Wing: Though similar to plane drones, fixed wing drones don’t have to conform to a specific look and model. Because of this, they have a much higher range of customization. They are popular among drone hobbyists and racers, who modify or build their own. Because the “wing” design has no fuselage is more agile and aerobatic by nature.
-VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing): A hybrid between multirotor and plane drones, VTOLs have both fixed wings and propellers that they use during flight. The propellers let them take off vertically and hover while the wings let them soar long distances without using any extra energy. These are a good compromise between multirotor and plane configurations.
Ornithopters are the result of over a century’s worth of innovation and engineering, but are relatively new in the drone scene. As drones, they take on the appearance and flight style of birds with wings that flap up and down. Their power source is usually an electric motor and they are controlled from the ground by a remote control. As they are modeled after real birds in both appearance and function, they use complex aerodynamic calculations to closely mimic their organic counterparts. It is thought that flapping wings could save energy and make taking off easier than with fixed-wing drones. To test this theory, ornithopter engineers are constantly studying birds to tweak and fine tune their machines to behave as similarly as possible.
Ornithopters are often decorated in such a way that they mimic the natural birds around the area. With this camouflage, researchers can infiltrate real flocks to study and observe their behaviour. Ornithopters are also sometimes used to mimic real hawks or eagles to scare rodents away from crops or towards traps.
There are also drones that look like bugs and a new model that looks like a bat. Many of these types of drones are marketed as toys with bright colours and cute designs. Additionally, hobbyists like to hand design and paint their own models as a form of art.
Simpler ornithopters use rubber bands and their designs range from easy enough for a beginner builder to advanced, detailed models that can fly for up to twenty minutes at a time. Rubber band powered models are mostly created and used by hobbyists and entered into competitions.
Also a very new addition to the drone world, the omnicopter used 3 dimensions of thrust to deliver unprecedented maneuverability. As with a standard multrotor the thrust trajectory is limited to only one plane and any given time. The omnicopter elevates this buy positioning it’s rotors at different angles in a 3D manner allowing instantaneous movements in any such direction. The thrust can be independently controlled at any given time allowing for never before seen agility. This design could very well revolutionize the way we use drones today. Like anything there are however drawbacks. The extra components increase the operational costs as well as decrease flight times.
Drones by Application
Since their release from the military, drones have been modified and improved by the general population. Like most technology, they first belonged mostly to industrial corporations, but eventually, the technology became available to common citizens and small businesses. Now it’s common for people to build their own drones from scratch like computers or sound systems.
In this way drones have become specialized to perform hundreds of very specific tasks and functions. For simplicity, drones are categorized into three main units based on their use
-Toys: Remote controlled planes have always been a popular toy for kids and adults alike. The usual models are quadcopters or planes, but toy companies modify all types of drones to be user-friendly and easily maneuverable. They also add colours, lights, and stickers to increase the fun appeal.
-Cameras: A huge popularity point for many drones over the last few years is their potential as flying cameras. Quadcopters are the most used for this because of their high stability, easy control, and low cost. A camera mounted on a drone can take wide, gorgeous shots of landscapes, cities, or faraway things with ease.
-Commercial use: Many different businesses and companies have modified drones to fit their specific needs. They have long been used in the agriculture business to scan, fertilize, and water crops. Filmmakers and photographers use them to take smooth shots from heights that normal cameras can’t reach. Drones are also used to deliver packages, messages, internet service, or advertisements. Scientists use drones with scanners and radar to inspect structures, map areas, and collect data for weather prediction or other studies.
There are new drone types being developed at a faster rate than ever before. Manufactures and engineers are trying to develop different platforms for specific tasks. As for consumer drones, quadcopters are still dominating as they make for a majority of the current configurations for sale today. To fugue out which type you need it’s best to decide what the application will be. What will it be used for and what is your budget and skill level. Here is a quick reference guide comparing drone types with the best suited applications.
- For indie or hobby Aerial Photography / Video : Quadcopter with camera and gimbal
- For professional aerial photography: Quadcopter, HexaCopter, OctaCopter, X8
- For Small Scale Mapping: Quadcopter, Plane, VTOL
- For Large Scale Mapping / Surveying: Plane, VTOL
- For Hobby and Fun: Tri-Copter, Quadcopter, Mini, Nano
- For Beginner and Kids: Quadcopter, Mini, Nano
- For FPV and Racing: Quadcopter, HexaCopter