The Now: What is a Drone?

Lesson 2: What is a Drone?


What is a drone?

Over the past few years, drones have become extremely popular. You may have seen them online, at department stores, or even at the grocery store. We’d like to give you a brief overview to show you what they are and why they are so popular.

Drone is a broad term that can refer to any unmanned aircraft. However, it usually refers to a multirotor. A multirotor has three or more propellers that can be used to hover or fly in any direction. The most common type is a quadcopter, which has four propellers (shown below).

Photo of a quadcopter drone

The term can also refer to military drones, which are usually large, unmanned airplanes. However, this lesson will focus on consumer drones.

Drones have some cool features

Why are they so popular? Well, in addition to flying, they have some other cool features:

  • Many drones have cameras, which allow you to see things from the drone’s perspective. The camera can also record videos, so you can share your flying adventures with other people.
  • Every drone has a built-in flight controller that keeps it stable. If a gust of wind tips it over, the flight controller will instantly adjust the propeller speeds to re-level it. This makes it easier for beginners to learn to fly.
  • Some drones have additional smart features that let them do cool things like fly autonomously (more on that later).

They come in all sizes (and price ranges)

There are countless drones to choose from, and they come in a range of sizes. The smallest ones can fit in the palm of your hand, and some cost less than $20. However, many of these do not include cameras.

Larger drones usually have high-quality cameras, and they may have other advanced features. Companies like DJI, Yuneec, and Parrot offer many options in the $100 to $500 range. High-end drones can cost thousands of dollars.

They have revolutionized aerial videos

Traditionally, aerial videos required a full-sized airplane or helicopter. Drones can now do many of the same things for much cheaper. As a result, YouTube is filled with gorgeous aerial videos taken by both pros and amateurs.

The video below was recorded with a drone. Keep in mind that not all videos will look this good. It requires a higher-end drone, as well as a scenic location!

Some drones can “think” for themselves

Not all drones require a pilot. Many of them can fly themselves, guided by GPS, and some can even avoid obstacles. This is known as autonomy: In other words, the drone can make decisions on its own without any human input.

Some drones have a follow-me mode, which is used by many action sports enthusiasts. In this mode, the drone will follow you at a safe distance and handle all of the camerawork, as in the video below.

They can bring you pizza (someday)

Some companies have begun testing drone deliveries of everything from food to mail to medicine for disaster relief. Although there are still some legal and technical hurdles, drone delivery may become common in the future. One day, you may be able to order a pizza online and have a drone drop it off at your home, just like in the video below.

They have some downsides

Like most new technologies, drones have introduced some new problems:

  • Privacy: Drones allow users to direct a flying camera almost anywhere they want, including other people’s property. Although there are laws restricting where drones can fly, some users ignore these laws.
  • Airspace issues: Drones are a hazard to full-sized airplanes and helicopters, and they can interfere with firefighting and rescue operations. In some cases, wildfires have spread further because a drone was hovering nearby, preventing firefighting planes and helicopters from reaching the fire.
  • Crashes: Drones can crash into people, cars, or buildings. Because the propellers spin very quickly, they can cause significant injuries or damage. If you decide to buy a drone, make sure to keep it away from people and pets.

Because of these issues, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires most U.S. drone owners to register and pay a one-time fee of $5. For more info, visit the sUAS registration page.

Drones are still evolving. In a few years, they will likely be even more affordable and higher quality, with amazing new features that we can only dream of today!