What is the definition of a drone?
Drones are usually thought of as small devices that are remotely flown or ‘piloted’ by someone who is not actually occupying the aircraft. That’s pretty close to a definition, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a more precise one, calling an unmanned aircraft one that “is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft." So if your small craft cannot have a human pilot inside or on it, it’s a drone.
Drones are sometimes referred to by more technical sounding names such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Those names are not going to be ones that the casual hobbyist needs to know, but if you’re doing above top secret contracting work on government military projects then those names are probably going to be more important. Laugh if you want, but I already covered in a previous article how drones are capturing some pretty amazing footage.
For the scope of this article, we will focus on ‘basic’ drones and how they relate to the hobbyist or someone looking to turn their passion into a home based business.
What kind of drones are there?
Drones come in a whole host of shapes, sizes, and prices. The FAA defines a small drone (for registration purposes) as one weighing less than 55 pounds. Commercial applications tend to use drones in the 10-20 pound range, while the military uses many large size drones which can often approach the size of a small airplane and require a runway. That’s a pretty big range, and gives us a wide selection to look at.
Generally, as the drone gets bigger you will find better performance. Larger drones offer better weight-bearing capacity and therefore more sophisticated monitoring equipment (cameras and audio) can be fitted onboard. You will also get bigger batteries – meaning longer runtimes and the chance to get deeper and more remote. Big drones also tend to be more stable and much more expensive.
Most of us will likely focus on the other end of the price spectrum – microdrones and nanodromes. Eventually, you may want to upgrade from the low priced drone you bought ‘for the kids’ at Christmas, and average guy drone operators can purchase these super-sophisticated models if their budget allows since the licensing and registration is very similar (more later).
Microdrones are defined as weighing less than 4.4 lbs. Nanodrones weigh just a few ounces and are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. These drones are what you find in toy and hobby shops and often are controlled by an app or on your laptop computer using software.
All drones rely on different methods for achieving flight. The three basic ‘propulsion systems’ are:
Fixed-wing – these drones offer great range and speed, at the expense of not being able to hover in place. Basically, fixed wing drones are a more intelligent remote controlled airplane. The smallest of fixed-wing drones can even be launched by hand or with a mini-launcher. The biggest need a runway for takeoff and landing – just like a human piloted plane.
Rotary-blade - these drones are what most people think of when looking to get into the hobby, resembling and functioning like small helicopters. Rotary blade models have the ability to hover in place in addition to vertical takeoff and landings, and are available in single or multi-rotor designs. The additional propellers give rotary-blade drone’s greater stability and weight-bearing capacity, but since there are more things working at once these drones have shorter battery life and flight ranges, and move at lower speeds.
Hybrid drones – these models try to combine the best of rotary and fixed blades into one package by using a combination of the two designs. These hybrid models can achieve greater speed capabilities than a normal rotary-blade drone, while gaining the ability to rise, hover, and land vertically like a rotary.
What industries can use drones?
Many drone operators will be satisfied to fly their toy for an hour or two on the weekends and leave it at that. Others will want to explore the full capabilities of their drone. You have probably already heard that Amazon began shipping orders through its Prime Air delivery system and were likely to see other large retailers incorporating similar delivery methods. The technology is moving fast, and new ways to use drones are being developed all the time across many industries.
That’s because drones are well suited for applications in agriculture, construction, energy, insurance, wireless communications, search and rescue, law enforcement, firefighting, real estate, photography, and film, just to name a few. More businesses are jumping onto the drone bandwagon because they are finding that drones dramatically increase workplace safety by keeping people out of hazardous situations. They also see the cost benefits and time savings of drones.
The enormous growth potential is obvious, which emphasizes the need for licensed and skilled operators. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that it expects the number of registered drones to double by 2022. That means there will be over 2.4 million remotely controlled drones in our skies in just a few years – all in need of a land based pilot. If you’re looking to explore career opportunities or start a home based business using drones, read this article.
As exciting as the potential of drone technology is, it doesn’t come without risks. If you want to learn more about operating a drone read the next article in this series: Licensing, Registration, and Insurance for Drone Operators.