What Is a Drone? The Deep-dive Into UAVs

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What Is a Drone? The Deep-dive Into UAVs

If there is one thing I wished humans had, it would be the power to fly. That is why I decided to get a drone. But what is a drone, exactly?

Drones come in many shapes and sizes, but one thing they have in common is that they are all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This article helps you understand the intricate world of drones with their many designs and purposes.

What Is a Drone?

The meaning of the word drone is not strictly defined. But most often, the term drone refers to something that flies in a controlled manner without a person on board. Another more descriptive term for a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or unmanned aircraft system.

Drones can be controlled remotely by humans, or they can be controlled entirely by artificial intelligence. Many drones use both, with inputs from human pilots with software capable of navigation, obstacle avoidance, taking off, and landing.

Onboard sensors and GPS navigation are used in many drone systems to provide detailed information about flight paths and to assist in flying remotely.

Most people use the word drone to refer to all sorts of UAVs, from the hobbyist’s small four-rotor drone to the advanced military weapon the size of an airplane.

The Types of Drones

Sometimes I’m surprised at the number of options available today, although some designs aren’t common in recreational drones. Let’s go over some of the major categories of drones with information on how each flies.

Single-Rotor Helicopter Drone

One design is the single-rotor helicopter drone. As the name suggests, this type of drone mimics the technology found on larger helicopters, such as a single rotor that drives propulsion and lift.

Just like helicopters, single-rotor drones have a secondary smaller rotor placed near the rear, known as a tail rotor. The tail rotor is responsible for controlling the direction and providing additional stability.

Single-rotor drones often use variable pitch rotors, which adjust the pitch of the rotors as needed during flight for stability and control. This type of drone usually performs vertical takeoff and landing.

Multi-Rotor Drones

Multi-rotor drones have more than two rotors and most commonly come with four. The additional rotors allow for a more simplistic design, as each rotor uses fixed-pitch blades. The control is provided by increasing the speed of each rotor for thrust and torque where necessary.

This type of drone comes in a range of options. A drone with three rotors is a tricopter, four rotors is a quadcopter, six rotors is a hexacopter, and eight rotors is an octocopter. The most common arrangement for recreational drones is a quadcopter design with four rotors.

Most multi-rotor drones are powered by batteries connected to electric motors that turn the rotors and blades.

Fixed-Wing Drones

Fixed-wing drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that can be self-propelled, pure gliders, or a combination of the two designs, using proposition and gliding characteristics. Most self-propelled, fixed-wing drones utilize a single propeller turned by a combustion engine or electric motor.

As the name implies, these drones feature a fixed wing that helps create lift for flying.

This class of drones can use a wide variety of power sources – larger models and older models typically rely on a gasoline or diesel engine to power the propeller. But electric motors are becoming more popular overall and can be powered via batteries and solar power.

The takeoff and landing methods for fixed-wing drones depend on the model. Some can be launched via hand launching, while others require a runway. Vertical takeoff and landing are possible for some fixed-winged drones.

Remember the Harrier jet and its vertical takeoff and landing? That’s basically what a fixed-wing drone can look like if it performs vertical takeoff and landing. Although they usually aren’t jet-propelled.

How Do Drones Work?

Teams carefully design and engineer drones to fly. They consist of a frame structure with a power source and the rotor(s) attached. These systems work together to fly in a controlled manner, usually receiving input from a stationary pilot.

Navigation and control are performed by a combination of onboard technology, including GPS and LIDAR sensors. This information is fed to artificial intelligence or a remote control operated by a human, and the aircraft maneuvers are based on the input provided.

The pilot or artificial intelligence will tell the drone to take off, maneuver, and land, using the rotors to provide thrust and control.

Taking Off

Either through artificial intelligence, human input through the remote control, or a combination of the two, drones take off after receiving the directive.

The most popular recreational drone, a quadcopter, almost always does a vertical takeoff and can be initiated by pushing a button or flicking a joystick. It can be a bit intimidating to initiate the flight sequence of a drone for the first time, but after some experience, it becomes a routine and simple task.

Maneuvering in Air

Once in the air, the drone can follow a preset path based on GPS coordinates, or it can be remote controlled by a human or computer pilot. The pilot typically controls the elevation, direction, and speed while also controlling the yaw (the way the front/rear face) and any cameras or other functions.

Drone pilots can follow the drone in flight through visual contact by looking at it in the sky or through a GPS-based navigation system on the remote control.

If you’ve never flown a drone before, it can be a thrilling experience. Many remote controls show you a bird’s-eye view, which gives you a glimpse into the feeling of flying.

Landing a Drone

Once done flying the drone, either due to a lack of battery or its purpose is complete, the drone needs to land. Much like taking off, one can land a drone through human pilot input, artificial intelligence, or a combination of the two.

Many popular recreational drones allow a user to bring the drone to a select landing area, then press a single button and the drone will land itself and shut off the rotors. Others require careful landing on runways or by human input the entire time.

Drone Roles and Their Uses

It is remarkable how many different roles and uses drones have. While I love my little recreational drone for having fun and taking a few photos, others have more specialized purposes and are flying tools.

Here is a small selection of the most common uses for drones.

Aerial Photography

Based on my experience, most people you see with a drone at a park, in the forest, on the beach, or somewhere with similarly beautiful surroundings are using it as a sky-high camera to take photos or videos.

The unique drone perspective results in incredible photos, showing a side of reality that we can’t often see. When taking video, gimbels provide smooth, stable footage. And you can point the lens in many ways during flight to create photos and videos with a lot of character.

Imagine a video that starts with a shot looking straight down into crystal-clear water; then the drone begins to fly toward one side as the camera pans up, unveiling a stunning sunset over the sea. Those are the types of shots that drone photographers love.

Photography drones are also common in more mundane settings, such as real estate listings, event photos, and surveillance purposes.

Recreation and Having Fun

Some people fly drones purely for fun. Many fixed-wing drones and remote-controlled airplane pilots are passionate about flying and love using small drone technology to get the thrill. Even regular pilots will use them for fun.

Flight paths can be tight through trees, curvy around rock formations, and full of adventure. Flying a drone doesn’t have to have a purpose beyond the flight itself.

Agriculture and Wildlife

Drones are valuable tools for watching over large areas of land or packs of animals. Ranchers can use them to keep tabs on livestock herds, while farmers can complete field surveys or estimate crop yield.

Drones are also helpful tools for wildlife and environmental protection. 

They can view and track endangered animals or provide deeper insight into the movement of large packs. Their ability to fly into isolated areas gives us an idea of what otherwise inaccessible areas look like, including forest growth or wildfire risk assessment.

Emergency Response

It’s always incredible seeing new technology being leveraged to assist when disaster strikes, and drones have proven their value in this arena time and time again. If one thing is certain, it’s that drones are going to become even more useful as emergency tools. 

Drones have spotted people buried in avalanches, provided gear and food to stranded individuals in dire need, and identified flood-impact areas. They have even been used to help fight fires.

The ability of drones to help out during emergencies is essentially limitless. They are not only eyes in the sky but also can carry vital equipment to first responders and rescue crews.

Rapid Delivery

We all love fast shipping, right? It’s amazing how we can place an order online and receive the package in just a few short hours or days.

Drones are revolutionizing the last-mile delivery needs of the world. 

Rather than depend on fleets of trucks, drones could deliver relatively light packages, around 50 pounds or less, directly from a warehouse to your doorstep or backyard. Many retailers and logistics companies are currently testing this capacity. 

Can you imagine a world where you order something from an online vendor and within minutes, it shows up at your doorstep? Maybe it’s a delivery pizza or perhaps a much-needed roll of toilet paper. Whatever the case, having drones take care of delivery could be an amazing way to increase delivery speed.

Military Purposes

Military use of drones has been going on for many decades, starting mainly as surveillance operations as early as World War II on remote-controlled aircraft.

Today, the military uses drones with sophisticated technology such as thermal imaging, laser range finders, and advanced cameras for many purposes. Their biggest benefit is that the pilot can remain far away from dangerous areas, while the aircraft can go nearly anywhere in the world.

Most controversially, military drones can be used to perform airstrikes.


Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions regarding drones and their usage.

Why are drones called drones?

The term drone originates from the Old English word for male bees responsible for mating with the queen bee. It eventually became a term for laziness, and then in the 1930s, the British military developed a remote-controlled aircraft called the Queen Bee. Some called it a drone that plays on the Old English definition, and the term stuck.

Are model airplanes also drones?

Model airplanes usually fit the definition of a drone, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle. Some people use the term drone only to refer to more modern designs such as battery-powered quadcopters, but remote-controlled model airplanes are technically drones too.

Are recreational drones really drones?

While the term drone doesn’t have a strict definition, most people do consider recreational drones to be real drones. Some of the confusion can come from the fact that the term for small recreational drones is shared by fixed-wing military aircraft, but both meet the common definition of drones.

So, What Is a Drone?

Isn’t it amazing how many different types of drones there are? They can be used for all sorts of purposes, come in an assortment of designs, and can be powered through many methods. 

At their heart, drones are nothing more than unmanned aerial vehicles that can be controlled by humans or artificial intelligence. Their designs can be single rotor, multi-rotor, or fixed wing, and they can be powered by gasoline and diesel engines, as well as battery power. 

For me, there’s nothing better than using a small drone to have fun in the sky while capturing some fantastic photos. Others use them more as a tool, including many photography professionals, wildlife needs, and military purposes. 

There’s no one right way to use a drone. Instead, there are a million purposes for these incredible pieces of technology.

Photo of author


Keith Moreau is the founder and chief editor at Flyver.co. His aim? Simple. Cut through the jargon and help you fly better and safer with your drone.

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