How do drones work?

How Do Drones Work?

The past couple of posts we’ve talked about what we call drones, and ┬ásome of the worries about drones but this week we’re going to give a fairly non-technical look at how drones work. Getting an idea of how something works gives you a leg up on understanding how it can be used most effectively in the civilian and commercial worlds. To do this, we’re going to reverse engineer and work backwards.

Drone propellers and motors

The thing(s) that keep the drones in the air are the propellers/rotors (thought technically rotors flex to help control the vehicle, drone propellers don’t flex. That doesn’t stop people from calling them rotors!). They spin at various speeds to help the drone hover as well as move all different directions. If we’re talking about a quadrocopter with four propellers (props), the front two propellers can slow down while the rear two speed up, causing the drone to lean forward and begin to move in that direction. Various other combinations allow the drone to slide to the left or fight as well as turn side to side.

The propellers are attached to the motors which provide the physical movement for the props. They transfer the electrical energy they receive into motion. The huge majority of motors you’ll see on any modern drone are electrical motors and they have various “kV” ratings, that is, number of rotations per volt. An average motor speed is in the 800-1100 kV rating, but they go much lower and much higher, to be sure.

Drone avionics

Each of the motors are attached to Electronic Speed Controllers (ESC’s) which govern the amount of electricity reaches the motors. The more electricity, the faster the motor spins, the more force the prop creates. The “orders” for each ESC come from the Flight Controller, which essentially serves as the brains of the drone. The Flight Controller takes any commands it’s given and translates that into the technical details for each ESC. The flight controller also provides the computation necessary to keep the craft level when it’s not receiving any input as well as incorporate the GPS data (if there is a GPS attached) to keep the craft located where it’s supposed to be located. Some flight controllers are even able to steer the craft 100% autonomously, based on a waypoint map a pilot creates perhaps, though technology is advancing where drones are able to see objects in front of them and avoid them (‘detect and avoid’).

Drone transmitters and batteries

The final two major parts of the equation on the drone are the remote control receiver and the battery. The receiver listens for the commands from the transmitter which the pilot has in their hands. They use the transmitter to fly the craft as well as interact with various additional items on the drone…cameras, sensors, etc. The receiver hears those commands (most of the time!) and tells the flight controller, and the flight controller acts accordingly. The battery supplies continuous DC power to the drone, powering all the electronics on board and essentially serving as the gas tank. As the battery drains, the flight life of the drone follows. If the pilot doesn’t pay attention to his battery, he risks his drone falling out of the sky once there’s not enough energy left to spin the motors fast enough.

In another post we’ll talk about some of the additional systems that a person can attach to a drone (cameras with transmitters to send video back tothe pilot, sensors that can measure data through a variety of means, even small arms that can carry supplies and release them on command to people in need below) to make it more resourceful, but these are the basic essentaily you need to get a drone in the air and keep it there! As always, if you see a drone owner out in the wild and have questions, we love to talk about our drones and would love for your to stop by!

Drone privacy and spying concerns

Drones are the Worst Spy Machines Ever

Can drones spy on you?

One of the biggest issues I think anyone that’s ever heard of drones (but never really interacted with them) has with them is the privacy issues. While there certainly are a number of true privacy issues that will need to be addressed as the FAA continues on their path towards getting more permanent regulations in place, most people fear a drone peeking through their windows or photographing them while they lay in their skinnies in the back yard. There are a couple of problems with these scenarios though.

First, drones aren’t exactly quiet

The most common civilian drones that someone is likely to run into (no pun intended!) are about the size of a basketball, give or take, and have four propellers on them. These make so much noise that you can hear them above your house while you’re inside and can hear them even up to 300-400 ft. above you when you’re outside. Even a drone the size of your hand makes enough noise to be the center of attention in any living room (yes, you can fly your drones indoors!). So no drone is going to sneak up to your window and peek through without you hearing it.

Second, while maybe 50% of drones out there have a video feed, the feed is poor resolution and choppy at best

Drones equipped with video feeds going back ┬áto the operator (FPV – First person view) tend to have poor video resolution and a choppy feed at best. Think of the days when you were trying to tune your rabbit ears to get a decent signal on that channel that never comes through well and you’ll have a reasonable idea what flying FPV is like. If there’s someone under a drone in a bikini, odds are the pilot would run into a tree before he got much of a look at anything.

So overall, when you hear about privacy concerns (especially with residential property) and drones, know that most of the things that people typically worry about aren’t going to be a problem in the drone sphere. The drone owners around you want to use their skills for good rather than look over your fence! And as always, feel free to go up and chat with any drone owners you see, they’re usually more than happy to talk about their drones!

Proper drone terminology UAV vs drone vs UAS

Drones vs. UAV and Other Names

So it seems one of the first problems you run into when you talk to someone about drones (or insert your favorite term for them here) is what do you call them? Drones is the term most people seem to know them by but others are pretty adamant about referring to them by another name.

We’re talking about any unmanned aircraft that carries any payload and any weight at takeoff

We’ll take a look at some of these names and come back around to why Float Avionics has settled on the term ‘drone.’

The most common technical sounding name behind ‘drone’ is UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

The terminology is pretty easily explainable and a lot of people aslo use UAS or Unmanned Aerial System, though some people (the Department of Defense in particular) define UAS as Unmanned Aircraft System, but you get the point. None of these are inaccurate in what we refer to when we’re talking about drones, whether they’re autonomous (meaning they fly by themselves, autopilot basically) or entirely controlled by the pilot at all times, whether they’re military or civilian or commercially used.

The other thread of thought often refers to drones as a ____-rotor/copter

For example, quadrotor, octocopter, multirotor, that sort of thing. Similar to how we might describe various vehicles as duallys or 18 wheelers, it’s really based around a physical description. The number of rotors typically is connected with the ability to lift more weight but what the purpose of extra payload is (aerial filming, surveying, inspections etc.) isn’t really clear.

The argument against using the term ‘drones’ seems most commonly put forth by those who worry that people unfamiliar with civilian or commercial drones will mistake them for their military counterparts which are much larger but cause significantly more damage, albeit deliberately. We at Float Avionics don’t really see it that way. Of course people are familiar with military drones but it doesn’t seem that the first thing that pops into their head when they hear someone on the news mention the term ‘drone’ as a large military aircraft but rather a small phantom or other ‘multirotor’ drone.

So in the end, we’re sticking with ‘drone’

It’s the term that the most people are most familiar with and it generally encompasses all the various kind of drones/UAV/UAS/Multirotors that you could bump into and that we could use for any kind of job. It’s the general term, like saying ‘I’m headed to the car’ when what you’re heading toward is really a truck wit ha giant suspension life. Certainly not a ‘car,’ it’s just the term you use…and it’s here to stay.