Drone Technology: What Is a Drone?

What Is a Drone?

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.


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.

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.

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How Do Drones Work?

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.


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.


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

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.


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.

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

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.

How Do Drones Fly?

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.


VTOL Drones

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.





Types of Drones

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, multi-rotor, fixed-wing and fixed-wing hybrid VTOL.


  • Single-Rotor Helicopter Drones
  • Multi-Rotor Drones
  • Fixed-Wing Drones
  • Fixed-Wing Hybrid VTOL Drones

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

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

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.

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What Are Drones Used for?

Drones are used for more than military and recreational purposes. In fact, UAVs can be found improving the efficiency and safety of almost every industry imaginable, from wildlife conservation to medical supply delivery.


  • Military drones
  • Drones for delivery
  • Drones for emergency rescue
  • Drones in agriculture
  • Drones in outer space
  • Drones for wildlife and historical conservation
  • Drones in medicine
  • Drones for photography

Uses of Drones


Military Drones

Probably the oldest, most well-known and controversial use of drones is in the military. The British and U.S. militaries started using very basic forms of drones in the early 1940s to spy on the Axis powers. Today’s drones are much more advanced than the UAVs of yesteryear, equipped with thermal imaging, laser range finders and even tools to perform airstrikes. One of the most prominent military drones in use today is the MQ-9 Reaper. The aircraft measures 36 feet long, can fly 50,000 feet in the air undetected and is equipped with a combination of missiles and intelligence gathering tools.


Drones for Delivery

Delivery drones are typically autonomous UAVs used to transport food, packages or goods to your front doorstep. These flying vehicles are known as “last mile” delivery drones because they are used to make deliveries from stores or warehouses close by. Retailers and grocery chains all over the country are turning to drones as a more efficient delivery alternative, instead of relying on delivery drivers with inefficient trucks. These drones can carry 55 pounds of goods to your front door without you ever having to leave the house. Amazon, Walmart, Google, FedEx, UPS and many other big brands are all testing out different versions of delivery drones.


Drones for Emergency Rescue

Sometimes it’s not safe enough to send humans into a rescue situation, due to the scope or severity of the disaster. That’s where drones come in. In the case of a capsized boat or drowning individual, officials can throw an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) into the water to assist in the rescue. If there’s an avalanche, drones are deployed to look for those caught in the snow. Aircraft maker, Kaman, has even developed a pilotless helicopter, called the K-MAX, designed to carry more than 6,000 pounds of cargo. The K-MAX has already been used in China and Australia to assist in fighting fires.


Drones in Agriculture

Drones have proven to be beneficial to the agriculture industry as well, presenting farmers with several ways to optimize their farms to maximize efficiency and reduce physical strain. Carrying out field surveys, seeding over fields, tracking livestock and estimating crop yield are all made easier through the use of UAVs while saving agriculture professionals valuable time.


Drones in Outer Space

NASA and the U.S. Air Force have been secretly testing out unmanned aircraft geared towards space travel. The X-37B UAV is the Air Force’s ultra-secretive drone that looks like a miniature space shuttle. It has been quietly circling the Earth for the last two years, setting a record for longest flight from an unmanned aircraft (781 days and counting). Although vague, the Air Force has said “the primary objectives to the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” It seems that drones have been made a priority when it comes to the future of space exploration and innovation.

Drones for Wildlife and Historical Conservation

Drones are a cheaper and more efficient alternative to wildlife conservation. Tracking wildlife populations is nearly impossible with humans on the ground. Having an eye-in-the-sky allows wildlife conservationists to track roaming groups of animals, ranging from Orangutans in Borneo to Bison on the Great Plains, to get a better idea of the health of their species and ecosystems. Conservation drones also make perfect tools in the fight against poaching efforts in Asia and Africa.

Drones are also being used for reforestation efforts all over the world. These drones scour the forest floors of forests decimated by fires and drop seed vessels filled with seeds, fertilizers and nutrients that will help a tree rise from the ashes. There have been around 300 million acres of deforested land since the early 1990s. What would take humans around 300 years to reforest can be more efficiently completed via seed-planting drone technology.

Finally, UAVs are becoming instrumental in historical conservation efforts. Drones are being used to map out 3D renderings of historical sites like Chernobyl, the ancient Greek sites of Ephesus, Turkey and Jewish cemeteries all over Europe. The vantage point gives historical preservationists the ability to find clues about culture and architecture while using 3D imagery to recreate lost sites.

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Drones in Medicine

How do you get medical supplies to people in hard-to-reach areas? What tool could you use to deliver organs for transplant patients? Drones are the answer to both of those questions. Right now, unmanned aerial vehicles are being used to deliver emergency medical supplies and cargo to off-the-grid communities in rural Alaska. Instead of relying on dog sleds, snowmobiles or ambulances that can’t handle snow, Alaskans are relying on drones to quickly receive life-saving medical supplies.

Drones are also being tapped to deliver donated organs to transplant patients. Just recently, history was made when a kidney was transported by a specially-made drone from one hospital in Maryland to the next in just under five minutes. This could cut down on the alarmingly slow rate at which donations usually arrive (if they arrive at all). Usually, organs are delivered via chartered or commercial flights. Delays and lapses in judgment cause dangerous delays of two hours or more for 4 percent of all organ deliveries. Drones can cut time down tremendously while offering a safer and secure method of organ transportation.


Drones for 3D Modeling

LiDAR drones come outfitted with LiDAR sensors, which survey landscapes and compile in-depth data that can be used to build 3D models. Drones equipped with LiDAR can present far more accurate data than drones without the technology. Besides making it easier to navigate various surfaces, LiDAR enables drones to spot targets in search and rescue missions, evaluate crops in agriculture and more.


Drones for Photography

Drones have been a boon for photographers who use UAVs to take expansive aerial photos. Ever wonder what it’s like to get a bird’s eye view of your favorite city, beach or building? There are drones made specifically for photography that provide a new way to photograph some of your favorite destinations from above.


Do You Need a License to Fly a Drone?

Up until 2016, commercial businesses that utilized drone technology were required to possess a pilot’s license regardless of their industry. However, new government regulations have come into play that require those piloting drones for commercial purposes to earn a Remote Pilot Certificate by taking an aeronautical knowledge test. The exam consists of 60 multiple-choice questions, with topics including regulations to Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) rating privileges, limitations and flight operation, effects of weather on UAS performance, emergency procedures, airport regulations, decision making, maintenance and more. To be eligible to take the exam, one must be at least 16 years old, be able to read, understand, speak and write English, and be in good enough physical and mental condition to fly a drone.

What Are the Challenges of Drones?

Drones present several solutions to emerging and lingering challenges throughout industries. However, many have expressed concern over the potential negative impact that the growth of these devices presents.


Drones and Privacy

Because drones rely on cameras to operate, which often allow operators to take photos and record videos, many have shown discontent at being captured without their consent. Several laws exist to restrict drones from intruding too far on others’ privacy, but many users choose to ignore these laws.


Drone Airspace

Since drones occupy airspace, with many able to reach heights rivaling those of a jet, concerns have been raised about drones causing or exacerbating disasters and emergency situations. Drones can often be hard to track on air traffic radars, presenting new obstacles for plane and helicopter pilots to navigate through while in flight. In some cases, the presence of a drone may even preclude emergency aircraft from providing assistance, like in wildfire-stricken parts of the American southwest.


Drone Crashes

Whether in the air or on the ground, all human-operated aircraft possess an inherent risk of crashing — even when they are unmanned. Drones operate on limited battery power at a time, possess propellers that spin quickly to provide lift and have the potential to fall from great heights, posing a large risk to people, property and the environment as the number of drones in use scales upward.


Drones and Cybersecurity

As drones become more popular in everyday and military use, they become a bigger target for cyber attacks. Hackers can feed false GPS coordinates to take control of a drone, and they can even intercept data that is transmitted between a drone and its remote controller. People should take extra precautions to protect drones and the information they store, such as implementing anti-virus software, adopting firmware patches and using strong passwords.

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