How Drones Work

How Drones Work?

Drones sound creepy

The modern-day world has associated a few mysterious connotations with the word “drone”. Electronic and print media portray the question regarding how drones work as creepy gizmos zipping through the skies as they look to prey on their human targets. The public, on the other hand, views drones as a stern reminder of prying eyes endeavoring to notice their every move and action all the time. Drones are certainly powerful gadgets and reconnaissance tools. But they are quite a bit more than these.

Technical Jargon

Despite being referred to as “drones” generally, the technical name that can be ascribed to these mechanization is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). It was the government and military organizations that were the first to embark on a journey that was destined to explore drones with regard to their utilization in wars. However, the modern day drones are being developed for kids, adolescents, enthusiasts, photographers, cinematographers, agriculture experts, architects, property agents and virtually anyone who wishes to use drones for their advantage.

History of drones

When the first drone soared into the skies, there was no jolt in the timeline of history. That is probably due to the fact that it is merely a matter of semantics to determine which device actually qualified as a drone. Was one of the balloons used in 1800s and loaded with explosives a drone or can be identify the initial V-1 rockets used by the Germans during the World War II as drones?

The flying torpedoes

In the early part of the twentieth century, drones even those maneuvered via radio controllers were used by military groups for target practice. Drones loaded with munitions were also engineered which probably couldn’t be classified as drones as they were the first Cruise missiles, referred to as flying torpedoes, that were never meant to return to their original point of launch.

How Drones Work in the Cold War Era

The United States ratcheted up the efforts to research on drones during the Cold War era in a bid to replace the manned reconnaissance planes with them. During the Vietnam War, drones were part of numerous spy missions and were destroyed by enemy fire but ended up saving the lives of pilots who would have died had they been boarding those aircraft.

It was then, that the engineers began to incorporate spying equipment in drones. Integrated cameras meant that the drones were able to reach sensitive installments and keep an eye on the troop movement and strategies that were being forged by the enemy.

Predator Drone

Predator drone was used for the first time in 2002 by CIA to destroy a target in Afghanistan. Predator, technically known as MQ-1 Predator, was one of the first military-grade drones that were first introduced in 1995 and has since been soaring the skies like a hawk looking to pounce on its prey. However, it has mostly been used in the Middle East as it offers a control range of a whopping 500 miles (805 Km) on a single spy mission and hover over targets for hours. The armed models of the gizmo can even fire high end missiles to destroy the intended targets.

The Predator is now one of the very many military drones that are being used as the initial strikes in Afghanistan were nothing but a small beginning.

How drones function

A conventional drone or an unmanned aerial vehicle consists of lightweight composite materials to reduce its weight and enhance its maneuverability. The strength gained via the use of composite materials grants military grade drones the enviable power to traverse incredibly high altitudes. Military-grade drones are loaded with cutting edge technology such as GPS, infra-red cameras,and laser. Drones are maneuvered by a radio-controlled system which is also referred to as a ground cockpit.

A UAV has essentially two parts: the drone itself and its control system. They are pivotal in describing how drones work.

The sensors and navigational systems are all housed in the nose of the drone. The rest of the body is lightweight and no space is required to accommodate a pilot as well. Highly complex composite materials are used to build a drone which have the ability to dampen vibrations and hence reduce noise.

Military-grade drones

The drones that are being used for military purposes can be so small that they may even be stuffed into one’s pocket and can also be so large that they can resemble a full-sized airplane and equip with state of the art capabilities. These drones are extremely expensive and can have wingspans of more than 100 feet (30 meters).

Drones can be deadly

Military-grade drones are generally portrayed as harmless and accurate war machines regarding how drones work. However, they can wreak unimaginable havoc. According to research conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in Pakistan alone, more than 400 drone attacks were carried out by the US that led to about 4,000 human casualties including 1,000 civilians of which 200 were children, unfortunately.

Manned aircrafts making way for drones

Modern-day technology is crucial to how drones work. It has immensely diminished the size of microprocessors and brought forth long haul communications features. These sophisticated specifications have ensured that the drones become suitable for military purposes. According to recent estimates, the US army owns about 11,000 manned and 8,000 unmanned aircraft. This means that one in three aircraft in the American fleet is an unmanned device. Well, if you had been skeptical about the advent of advanced sci-fi resembling combats, it’s time to throw caution to the wind and believe that those days have come.

Types of Military-grade drones

The US military-grade drones can be classified into three main types: mini, tactical and strategic. Mini drones are used for short-range reconnaissance; tactical drones offer tremendously long flight durations and control ranges to the tune of 322Km; while strategic drones have the capacity to fly for several days and even carry weapons as payload.

There are speculations regarding how drones work. These drones use battery power to rotate propellers while the advanced ones are more expensive and equipped with full-fledged jet engines. They are able to fly at a whopping 805Km/h and attain elevations of up to 15,240m.

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Some drones are intelligent devices that are able to follow predetermined maneuvers. Some require pilots who may be seated on the ground near the operation or in their cosy control rooms situated thousands of miles away; controlling their gadgets via lightning fast wireless links.

Not a replacement for human efficiency and senses

Owing to the latency of a couple of seconds between the drones and the control room, crashes are inevitable.  Sometimes human errors are committed by the pressing of the wrong button or by poor judgment calls based on a misinterpretation of flight data. After all, the drone cameras cannot replace the efficiency and senses of a human in real-time scenarios. Since 2001, 400 large drones have crashed but simultaneously disasters have also been averted. In case of a disrupted wireless connection, the drones can hover in circles or even return to their original spot of launch without any human intervention.

Piloting drones is a thankless job

Similar to air traffic controllers, drone pilots have stressful yet drab tasks to perform generally encompassing reconnaissance and termination of potential targets. In contrast to how drones work regarding typical pilots, drone pilots resign from their jobs three times more and so the US military has doubled their remuneration to boost their retention rate.

The ones who decide to stay at their posts, undergo stringent training in typical classroom environments as well as hands on practice sessions at their computer terminals. Numerous test flights are conducted and the mid flight decisions of pilots are reviewed. The aim is to prepare the pilots for the worst case scenarios specifically when maneuvering aircrafts in life threatening circumstances.

Many who do well, receive accolades while a number of them suffer post traumatic disorders from the devastation wreaked by their drones despite being physically disconnected from their device by several thousand miles.

Having said that, all drones are not associated with causing chaos and destruction. There is a wide array of commercial and hobby grade drones available on the market.

Intelligent drones

Autonomous flight features are touted as impressive armaments when it comes to consumer and commercial drones. They can be so small that you may even be able to launch them from the palm of your hand and can cost as low as $100. The higher end and more reliable models can attain remarkable altitudes and if detected by the local radar, may even have the pilot apprehended by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Internal compass and Failsafe function

This feature provides exact details of the flight location and how the drones work with the remote control system. A home point is set up after the compass has been calibrated. This is the location where the drone will return in case the signal gets attenuated between the drone and the remote control system. This is referred to as the Fail Safe function.

FPV live video transmission

FPV is the acronym for First Person View and this is the scenario when a camera is mounted to the nose of the drone and a real time video is transmitted to the pilot of what is being viewed by the drone. It seems as if the pilot were sitting inside the cockpit of an actual aircraft rather than controlling it from a distant location on the ground.

FPV gives an understanding of how the drones work at a higher altitude and to distant locations as compared to when maintaining line of sight with the drone. This technology allows for accurate flight especially around obstacles.

It also enables safe and secured indoor flights through forests and around buildings where it would not be possible to fly from a certain fixed location on the ground while maintaining line of sight.

Thanks to the amazing FPV technology, the drone racing league has gained massive traction among consumers and enthusiasts throughout the world.

The FPV technology utilizes the radio signals to transmit and receive real time video footage.

The drone comes with a multi-band wireless FPV transmitter and an antenna. Depending on the drone, the receiver of the real time video signals can be either the remote control unit, a computer, a tablet or smartphone device.

The real time video feed depends on the strength of the signal between the ground terminal and the drone. The more advanced drones such as the DJI Mavic Pro and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro can broadcast real time video footage up to 7 Km. DJI Lightbridge 2 transmission system is incorporated in the DJI Phantom 4 and DJI Inspire 2.

Integrated controllers and employed in advanced drones such as the DJI Mavic Pro. Moreover, smart algorithms are utilized to configure a new standard for wireless high definition image transmission by reducing delay and enhancing range and reliability.

Real time video broadcast and optimized control range is an exciting drone technology. Here is a detailed article on Understanding FPV Live Video Transmission.

FPV Over 4G/LTE Networks

The year 2016 came with the Sky Drone FPV 2 drone technology via which real time video is broadcast over the 4G/LTE network offering unrestricted control range and reduced delay. The system consists of a camera module, a data module and a 4G/LTE modem.

Commercial Drones

A large number of commercial businesses have started to use drones for different purposes. Those enterprises can reap rich dividends from these gizmos in incredible ways and hence get an increase in their Return on Investment; thereby resulting in a massive boost in the global economy.

Uses of drones

Drones are also being used for emergency situations by the fire departments, police squads and for search and rescue operations as they have the ability to survey the disaster hit area, drop off food and requisite medication and look for the missing persons. Drones have also come a long way in construction, pipeline monitoring, land mapping, wildlife conservation and plenty more.

Fun with drones

Drones also offer tons of entertainment. Humans, of course, do not have wings but they can fly in the skies through these incredible creatures, using their high resolution cameras to zoom in and out of the objects on the ground and in the skies.

Drones in Homes

The use of drones for commercial and consumer purposes is regulated in the US and other countries by aviation authorities particularly when it comes to ensuring safety standards are complied with. However, that does not tend to prevent millions from using their drones for myriad of purposes such as cinematography, looking after the cattle, crop inspection and delivery of products.

Online retail stores

A brisk walk through your favorite online retail store will introduce you to the thousands of consumer drones available for sale. You can learn about how drones work in this store. While some are low cost, others are expensive and can be broadly classified into two main categories namely fixed-winged and rotary. Each category of drones has its own benefits and drawbacks.

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Fixed wing drones

Fixed winged drones can be launched from the hand but more often than not, they require a runway or some kind of launching mechanism. Having said that, we know how drones work in speed. They are swifter and offer greater flight timing in contrast to their rotary counterparts.

eBee senseFly

The eBee senseFly is a fixed winged drone that has been engineered for surveying and mapping purposes. Once launched into the sky, it follows a predetermined trajectory while capturing high resolution images that are later on incorporated into 3D models and map overlays. It offers a control range of 4 square miles and comes across as an ideal option for farmers who can use it to survey their fields while boosting their yield.  The eBee drone costs about $10,000.

Agribotix Hornet LR

The Agribotix Hornet LR is another fixed wing that gives credentials about how drones work similar to the eBee and has been designed specifically for agricultural end users. With a wingspan of about 2 meters and an incredible speed of 30mph, the drone offers a flight time of 90 minutes and is being leased out by the manufacturers for less than $2,000.

Fixed wing drones are merely tip of the iceberg when it comes to commercial and consumer drones.

Most Common UAVs

Fixed wing drones are swift and offer higher flight timing but rotary drones are more common due to their ease of use and since they are a more reliable option when it comes to aerial photography. There is a wide array options when considering rotary drones.

Hubsan Mini RTF Quadcopter

The Hubsan Mini Ready to Fly quadcopter costs less than $60 and is compact enough to fit in the palm of your hands. It takes about 40 minutes to get charged completely while offering 7 minutes of flight duration wherein the user can carryout four-way flips and other aerial maneuvers. The drone also lets you capture images using a 0.3MP camera.

Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

Worth only $400, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Power Edition comes loaded with high end batteries that offer a flight time of 36 minutes. It is bundled with a free flight control application that can be installed to your WiFi enabled handheld mobile device that allows you to control the drone up to a distance of 165 feet. It is loaded with a 720p HD video camera that presents a real time video footage of what is being seen by the drone.

DJI Phantom Series

The mighty DJI are the entrenched market leaders in the drone manufacturing industry that have come up with the amazing DJI Phantom line of drones. These phenomenal devices are designed specifically for the budding videographers that lets them capture stunning aerial shots without purchasing costly equipment. Some models are loaded with camera mounts for attaching GoPro action cameras while others have integrated cameras installed.

FC40 Phantom 2 Vision+

The FC40 Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter costs about $1,000 and offers a control range of 2,600 feet along with a flight timing of 25 minutes. The drone is maneuvered via a dedicated radio controller while the video and camera features a managed via the smartphone Android and iOS powered app.

All these prolific gizmos soaring in the skies remind one of the traditional radio controlled helicopters and planes. Is there any difference between these machines and the sophisticated drones zipping in the air?

Autonomous Flight Features

The modern day drones have tremendous potential and sophisticated features. These devices boast autonomous flight features such as the waypoints feature wherein the user simply points a location on the GPS screen and the machine follows that trajectory. Similarly, these devices are loaded with the Follow Me mode that enables them to follow the user tracking him or her wherever he goes.

The present day drones are loaded with tons of incredible features that offer plenty of fun and entertainment. Of course these features are not of much value if you are not able to get your drone to rise up into the air.

Aerial Stunts

The most novice of drone enthusiasts would know about how drones work with four propellers and can have as low as three and as high as eight of them. This is in contrast to the typical RC Helicopters that have only one main rotor. Drones need to have additional rotors to get the much needed stability in order to perform their autonomous flight functions.

Rotors produce the necessary push

The more rotors a machine has, the higher is its ability to create more lift which of course is the push provided by the rotating propellers underneath the flying device. The greater the lift, the higher the altitude that can be attained by the gizmo and the swifter it can travel. Moreover, it can carry more payload which is an essential feature for those looking to mount their cameras to drones. A drone with little push from the underneath will even struggle to take off from the ground.

Flight duration

Power is the primary reason that most of the drones are not able to offer a flight duration of more than 15 to 20 minutes. The propellers are powered by drones and a couple of lightweight batteries are sufficient to keep a drone in the air for a short span of time. One may go onto add more batteries but their additional weight tends to be a hurdle in enhancing the flight duration.

Rotation of propellers

The power is transferred from the batteries to the rotor motors which in turn rotates the propellers. The relative rotation of the propellers with respect to one another is responsible for the variations in elevation and direction. Once the motors get enough energy, they furnish the requisite push to overcome the force of gravity; thus taking the drone to greater altitudes.

The motors and propellers are responsible for making sure that the drone gets into the air and fly in a certain direction or even hover over a certain point for that matter. A quadcopter has motors and propellers functioning in pairs with a pair of motors/propellers rotating clockwise (CW Propellers) and two motors/propellers rotating counterclockwise (CCW Propellers).

Tilting a drone

To make the drone tilt to a specific direction, two of the propellers start rotating at a faster rate in that direction to produce the desired push. In this process, some portion of the push in the upward direction is converted into a sideways force which is responsible for moving the drone in the forward or backward direction. Similarly, disparate propeller speeds tend to move the drone in varying directions.

Sensors in a drone

Of course a pilot does not have to take the trouble to take these processes into consideration while flying a drone else they would end up crashing their drone every few minutes or so. The orientation of a drone midflight is maintained by virtue of accelerometers and gyroscopes. These sensors utilize translational acceleration, tilt and other such indications to prevent the drone from crashing into the ground.

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The gyroscope needs to function right from the moment the drone is airborne against the forces working to destabilize its flight. The central flight controller is furnished mandatory navigational data.


By using one or more of the accelerometers, the current rate of acceleration is determined by the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). It also gauges the rotational characteristics such as pitch, roll and yaw by virtue of one or more gyroscopes. Some Inertial Measurement Units are also equipped with magnetometers to calibrate the flight in case the drone sways away from the appropriate orientation.

The gyroscope is a part of the IMU and the IMU is an essential part of the drone’s flight controller which is the central brain of the gadget.

GPS enabled drones

Some drones are also equipped with GPS that enables them to know their location. Such a drone will hover at the instructed spot while sustaining wind.

A radio controller is required to operate a drone which generally works at the 2.4GHz frequency. A majority of the drone controllers resemble the RC controllers of the yesteryears and appear more like boxes with a couple of joysticks and a retractable antenna. Others bank on a blend of 2.4GHz signals and WiFi and appear like a modern day gamepad or they may bank on a smartphone app powered by Android and iOS.

Comparison of low cost and costly drones

Flying a consumer drone can be immensely easy as well as extremely complicated. Low cost drones may not put too much burden on your pocket and yet so complex to fly that before you figure out how to fly them, you may end up getting them crashed. The more expensive drones are loaded with autonomous flight functions such as landing assistance feature which makes life a tad easier for them.

Drones: Nightmare or Sweet Dream

Drones are being used for reconnaissance purposes which tends raise questions regarding privacy violation of individuals.  They can carry weapons of mass destruction and even wreak havoc by killing thousands while the pilot relaxes in his cosy operation room.

However, drones are also a sweet dream for commercial purposes. They can be used for land mapping, survey,s and inspections. They can be used to monitor construction sites and have brought about a revolution in agriculture, real estate, and package delivery.

Impact of drones on the national economy

The estimates give an indication of how drones work. Drones can give rise to more than 100,000 jobs in the next ten years or so while bolstering the economy enormously by supporting sectors such as engineering, computer science, cinematography, and the military.  All these fields need professionals to design and fly drones and these professionals could end up earning from $50,000 to $100,000 per annum.

Education degree programs for drones

Educational institutes such as the University of North Dakota are offering professional degrees for aspiring drone pilots in the wake of the drone revolution. The drone pilots tell us clearly about how drones work. The drones are made to hone their skills on simulators as they build up their flight hours but more often than not they don’t get to fly real drones as part of their program. That is because of the legal restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

FAA regulations

A drone hobbyist can only take the drone to a maximum elevation of 400 feet and has to keep it at a distance of 5m from the airports to ensure airspace safety. Despite these stringent regulations, FAA has reported numerous violations which could have resulted into catastrophes of unimaginable magnitude. This is a major hurdle in the path of the government authorities to mainstream commercial drone usage.

Having said that, the Government agencies are making efforts to integrate commercial drone usage while enhancing economy. We should expect drones to get mainstream in the near future.


The drone technology is likely to get better and better as hobbyist drones are becoming sophisticated with every passing day. What do you think that how drones work as a replacement for aircraft? Drones are replacing a growing number of manned aircraft and they are definitely here to stay. For a few years, the technology employed in military-grade drones is being utilized in consumer drones. The previous few years have seen huge amounts of investment in the drone industry and we should expect to see bigger things to come.


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