Drone flying in the air

What Is a Drone? Your Guide to These High Flying Robots

It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's a Drone!

You've probably seen them flitting around public parks or sports games — drones are increasingly becoming part of our world. But what is a drone and how exactly does it work?

In aviation, a drone refers to an unmanned aircraft. These flying robots are remotely controlled through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems, which work together with GPS and on board sensors, such as distance and thermal sensors.

A drone has two parts: the drone itself and the control system. It also needs a way to communicate between the two. Some drones are controlled with an app on a tablet or a smartphone. Others have remote controls similar to those of a video game console.

Drones come in many sizes, from those small enough to fit into the palm of the hand to those almost the size of a plane. They function with lithium-ion battery-powered electric motors. The most popular drones available today are multi-rotors with at least three propellers.

What Are Drones Used For?

Non-military drones are becoming an accessible and inexpensive way to accomplish many tasks. Apart from hobbyists flying them for fun, here are some other ways they can be used.


Before the use of drones, aerial photos and videos were taken from helicopters or airplanes. Now photographers and videographers are able to get great shots without needing such a big budget.


These drones have a claw or some kind of delivery system and can remotely drop items or place them in a specific target area. Amazon, DHL and other large companies are looking at drones to minimize overhead costs, dangerous driving conditions, and shipping times. We may start to see drones dropping off items quite regularly in the not too distant future.


Drones equipped with cameras (standard and infrared) and instruments sensitive to weather conditions can be used effectively for monitoring.

Weather Conditions and Fires

Government agencies sometimes use drones to monitor storms or hurricanes without putting pilots at risk. They can also be used to help detect and prevent forest fires.

Crowd Surveillance and Public Safety

Drones can help with crowd surveillance and monitor for criminal activity.

Construction Sites

The ability of drones to model from above in 3D provides an important way to monitor construction sites and check on projects from beginning to end.

Precision Agriculture

Drones can monitor crops more regularly and cheaply to improve management and yield. Near-infrared sensors can help detect crop health and allow farmers to take action if necessary.

Wildlife and Poaching

Drones can act as a deterrent to poachers. They can also be used to monitor animals and provide new insight into their behavior.


Drones can inspect power lines, transmission towers, bridges and more. The ability to take thermal readings, sense in 3D and detect metal strain can help with inspecting infrastructures.

Disaster Management

After a disaster, drones can help navigate debris and gather information. Rescuers don't have to wait for manned helicopters, and because of their small size, the drones can provide close-up views of areas impossible for larger aircraft to reach.

Geographic Mapping

Drones can reach difficult locations, such as mountaintops, and acquire high-resolution data to create 3D maps. Some people are already collecting data and contributing to cloud-sourced mapping applications.

Search and Rescue

Thermal sensors allow drones to detect the location of lost persons, particularly in challenging terrain or at night. They can also drop supplies in unreachable locations to helps victims before rescue crews can extract them.

How to Fly a Drone

Drones need batteries and as power flows from them to the rotor motors, the propellers start to spin. Rev up the rotors and they will generate enough lift to overcome the force of gravity. The spin of one propeller relative to another is what changes direction and altitude.

Drones have gyroscopes and accelerometers that help them stay oriented in space. Many of them also have GPS so they "know" where they are. Command a drone to hover and it will do so.

To input your commands, you need a controller. Some controllers use 2.4 gigahertz radio waves and others use a combination of radio signals and WiFi. Some can be controlled from an app on a mobile device.

The difficulty of flying a drone ranges from fairly easy to extremely difficult. Cheaper drones may crash and break before you can figure how to make them fly from one point to another. More expensive ones often have automatic functions, such as landing assistance that may simplify some of the riskier elements of flying.

Where Can You Fly Drones?

As drones become more popular, so laws are starting to change. Before using a drone commercially or personally, you should check the laws of the country in which you want to fly it because violations can incur heavy fines.
In many places, including the U.S., civilian and commercial drone use is pretty restricted by aviation administration regulations, mainly for safety reasons. Large businesses like Google and Amazon, as well as hobby enthusiasts, have been pushing for relaxation of these regulations.
The FAA is re-evaluating its regulations, and some of the newly proposed regulations include the following:

  • The unmanned aircraft must remain within visual line of sight of the operator or visual observer.
  • Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.
  • A maximum altitude of 500 ft. above ground level.

Do You Need WiFi to Fly a Drone?

To control a drone remotely, you have to be able to communicate with it wirelessly. The controller can connect to the drone via radio. For radio waves to work, you need to have a transmitter to send messages and a receiver to receive them and they need to be tuned to the same frequency.

Most drones today are WiFi enabled so they can broadcast video to a tablet, smartphone or computer. Some of them also use WiFi for remote-controlling through a mobile device.

Final Words

As interest grows, technology is helping to make drones more robust and able to accommodate longer flight times and heavier payloads. Drones are here to stay and are likely to become an integral part of our lives in many ways in the years to come.