Like the radio, digital cameras, the internet and even duct tape, drones are another example of revolutionary technology originally developed for military purposes later adapted for the everyday household.
Today, there are many types of drones enjoyed by hobbyists, photographers and curious looky-loos alike. As probable as it is these unmanned, remotely controlled vehicles will be autonomously delivering pizzas to our doors in the near future, they’re also on the scene rescuing avalanche victims, detecting landmines and backing reforestation efforts.
When it comes to differentiating one drone from the next, it’s much more than bold color finishes and price ranges. In fact, specific features — such as design, size, power source or use case — classify drones into specific types. Here are some of those categories.
Types of Drones (by Design)
- Rotary Wing
- Fixed Wing
- Fixed Wing Hybrid Vertical Takeoff and Landing
- Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles
Types of Drones
Rotary-wing drones become airborne by using circulating blades to push wind downward, vertically lifting from the ground. They may feature one or more propellers, splitting them into two categories: single-rotor and multi-rotor models. Single-rotor drones resemble miniature helicopters, with one central propeller supporting the body. Multi-rotor models have a frame that branches out to incorporate multiple propellers. The latter includes several model types that range from tricopters (drones with three propellers) to octocopters (drones with eight propellers).
Similar to an airplane, the body of a fixed-wing drone relies on wings to lift into the air rather than rotors. These drones are typically large, fuel-powered models used by the military and require a runway to operate.
Fixed-Wing Hybrid Vertical Takeoff and Landing
Combining the best of both rotary models and fixed-wing models, these hybrids can take flight by lifting off in a vertical motion — indicated as VTOL, or vertical takeoff and landing — then adjust to a horizontal flight mode by tilting the wing-attached rotors toward the nose of the drone.
Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles
Submarine drones, known as underwater remotely operated vehicles, can explore the ocean and come in two different varieties: tethered and untethered. While limited by a cable, underwater drones relay real-time data, such as video, to the source at the other end of the cable without losing connection. Untethered underwater ROVs share similar capabilities but cannot travel as far below without losing signal.
These drones, often categorized as “nano” drones, can measure under two inches in length and can weigh as little as 11 grams. One of the smallest drones available to the commercial market is the Hubsan H111 NANO Q4, which is 1.8 inches by 1.8 inches and weighs 11.5 grams.
Also known as “mini” or “micro” drones, small drones measure at about the size of your hand — three to six inches long — and land somewhere in between 200 to 1,000 grams. Not to be mistaken for a child’s toy, the six-inch Black Hornet is a small drone first used by covert British military ops during the invasion of Afghanistan.
Medium-sized drones weigh between 2 to 44 pounds with a propeller diameter between 6 to 25 inches. Both Inspire 2, which weighs about 8 pounds, and the Matrice 600 Pro hexacopter, about 34 pounds, from DJI are considered mid-sized drones.
Large unmanned, remote-controlled aircrafts are typically only used in the military. Some, like the 27-foot-long Predator and 36-foot-long Reaper models, are used in combat to fire missiles and deploy laser-guided bombs. The nearly 50-feet-long Global Hawk, however, is a non-combat vehicle used to scan phone calls for surveillance purposes.
By Power Source
If you see a drone out and about, it’s most likely battery-powered. While their considerable weight decreases flight time and consumes more power, they are favored by the commercial market because they are rechargeable and portable.
Like a car, drones that are typically larger in size may be gas compatible, allowing for longer flight times. Gas-powered drones require a runway for liftoff and typically carry a heavy payload. Because of these factors, they are most commonly associated with military use.
Nitro fuel enables motors to burn faster and run cooler. This results in higher rotations per minute, unlocking a drone’s potential speed. These, too, are often found in military-related aviation.
Solar-powered drones can maintain continuous flight for an extended period of time at high altitude. Using solar panels to collect sun-sourced energy into lithium-ion batteries, these models are being developed by military trials, which have recorded flight times up to 42 days.
By Use Case
Types of Drones (by Use Case)
- Ready to fly
- Target and Decoy
Combat drones allow military forces to conduct aerial warfare without risking the life of a human pilot. These weaponized aircrafts are equipped with bombs or missiles. While the use of armed drones has increased for U.S. operations since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, their origins date back to 1849 when Austria launched 200 unmanned balloons filled with explosives during an attack on Venice. In addition to the Predator and Reaper models mentioned above, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian is a combat drone used by the Royal Air Force.
Delivery drones are an autonomous solution for distributing packages to consumers. Over the past decade, household names like Walmart, UPS and Domino’s have been dabbling in developing delivery drone prototypes and conducting trial runs. And while there are several claims to being the “world’s first” drone delivery service, like this one that rolled out in Iceland in 2017, widespread use is still few and far between. Amazon, which launched its drone-delivery service Prime Air in January in two towns, is one contender that’s exposing the promise of delivery drones. The company used MK27-2 hexacopters to deliver packages that weighed less than five pounds to residents in College Station, Texas, and Lockeford, California.
Endurance drones are optimized for flight time, that is, to stay in the air for as long as possible. This is mostly determined by the aircraft’s size, weight and accompanying payload weight. Spending hours or — in the context of military aircrafts — even days, these models may scrimp on or completely forgo bonus features like cameras, stabilizers and GPS in order to maximize in-flight capacity. The average flight time for mid-market drones is 22 minutes, while high-end drones may last 28 minutes, according to research conducted by drone manufacturer JOUAV. One example of an endurance drone is the gasoline-powered Foxtech Eagle-360 Hybrid VTOL, which can carry a 10-pound payload while still maintaining a five-hour flight time.
Follow-me drones are truly autonomous machines, which use a smart-flight feature that enables the flying robot to track whatever person or object is on the receiving end of a GPS device it’s programmed to follow. Creating a virtual tether, the drone will take continuous photos or video while following at a preset distance and altitude determined by the user. This use case is common in sport and wildlife photography. The DJI Air 2S is a follow-me drone that can be programmed to follow or circle an identified subject.
Like a smartphone, these drones are equipped with a global positioning system. In sync with a network of orbiting satellites, these models transmit signals in order to make their location readily traceable, which comes in handy for features that allow autopilot, return-to-home functionality and waypoint navigation. GPS drones, like Yuneec’s Mantis Q, will return on command, using built-in navigation to respond to voice control commands such as “come back.”
Nearly every drone model is equipped with a camera, making nearly every example on this list a photography drone. Some drones, however, are designed with the sole intent to shoot still imagery and high-resolution video. Take a professional-grade, digital camera and attach it to rotors, or any choice of high-flying mechanism, and you have a photography drone. Director Sam Mendes shot the 2012 Bond film Skyfall using Flying-Cam 3.0 SARAH, ultimately winning an Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Racing drones prioritize speed, maneuverability and aerodynamics over all other features. During a race, operators race each other on a set track wearing goggle-like, head-mounted displays that livestream from their drone’s camera for a first-person view. Both the Walkera F210 3D and the EMAX Tinyhawk Freestyle BNF quadcopter are racing vehicles.
Ready to Fly
Ready-to-fly, or “RTF,” drones come complete in one all-inclusive kit. In addition to the actual aerial vehicle, packages include controller, receiver and transmitter, battery and charger. They differ from bind-and-fly sets, which come with everything but the remote controller, and almost-ready-to-fly sets, which will identify specific, additional parts needed before taking flight. RTF drones are ideal for pilots new to the scene who are still building their kit out. The DJI AIR 2S quadcopter comes ready to fly straight from the box.
Slightly larger in size, reconnaissance drones are used as both non-combat and combat drones. They can identify targets for precision-guided munitions launched from external, manned systems or directly fire the munitions themselves, depending on the model. Of all drone types, these aerial vehicles are the ones most commonly employed by militaries, according to online aviation database Aerocorner. The IAI Heron and the LUNA are both classified as reconnaissance drones.
Stunt drones are small, maneuverable models built with tech to perform flips, rolls, barrel rolls, spins, dives and upside-down flight. They share a likeness to racing drones but are best thought of as toy models enhanced with special tech for aerial acrobatics. Many stunt drones are easily programmed to encode personal tricks. One example is the Ryze Tech Tello.
Tactical drones are non-combat drones that are primarily used in the military for surveillance. Equipped with GPS and infrared cameras, their purpose is to gather useful intel from an aerial perspective in challenging environments. Tactical drones are typically lightweight and sized for SUV transportation while being easy to maneuver, requiring no special training. Examples include the RQ-11B Raven and the Lemur 2.
Target and Decoy
The military’s primary use of target and decoy drones is to divert threats. These deceptive, “dummy” drones mimic manned aircraft in order to mislead enemy forces and draw them out from their covert locations. They’re typically low cost and, in the case of target drones, are often used as bullseyes in training. One example of a target and decoy drone includes the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, or MALD.
As the name entails, certain drones are made for play. Designed with beginners and kids in mind, toy models are often colorful, inexpensive, easy to operate and can be flown indoors. Examples include Potensic A20 and the Holy Stone HS210 Mini Drone.