What to Know About Flying a Drone

Learn about the physics and history behind drones.

The use of drones has exploded in the last few years. It seems everywhere you go these days there are drones for sale or people flying them. YouTube is full of crazy videos filmed by drones from sports to industrial wastelands. Companies like Amazon are even planning to deliver packages by drone. So how’d drones take over our skies and what should you know about them?

Flying remote-controlled aircraft isn’t anything new. As early as the late 1800s, it was common to find small radio-controlled, hydrogen blimps inside of theaters. In the 1930s, it started to become a sport with remote-controlled planes rackid flying a droneing each other. Since then, it’s boomed into a popular hobby that grows more popular each year.

First off, what’s a drone? In a technical sense, a drone is an autonomous unmanned aircraft. However, “drone” has come to encompass hobby aircraft that don’t fit the typical airplane or helicopter configuration. The most common are quadcopters: small aircraft with four propellers providing lift and directional control.

These days, many come with autopilot features that can land the drone or fly it in a predetermined pattern. Some even have GPS, so even if the remote loses contact, the drone can fly back to where it started. With these upgrades, it brings them back to the original definition of the word drone.

The other thing that sets drones apart from other model aircraft is cameras. Almost all drones can carry a camera or have one built in already. Many can send live video back to the flyer. While you can mount a camera to almost any hobby aircraft, cameras have become an integral part of drones because drones are extremely stable in flight.

Drones have similar in-flight abilities to a helicopter, being able to fly in any direction and even hover. However, drones with their four or more propellers are much more stable. This is because of the multiple lift rotors. Try balancing a ball on one finger, now try using four fingers. Much easier with four. That’s because there is always at least one finger keeping the ball centered.

So how do drones do this hundreds of feet in the air? Simple: computers. Packed inside the drone are accelerometers and gyroscopes that’re constantly providing feedback on what the pilot is doing and then changing how fast any one of the rotors is spinning. These inputs and computer controls are what cause the drone to move through the three axes of movement:

  • Roll: Rolling side to side along a line that runs front to back. Drones accomplish roll by speeding up the rotors on one side or the other. This causes the drone to slide to the left or right.
  • Pitch: Tipping forward or back along a line that runs side to side. Drones pitch by increasing or decreasing either the front or back propellers. This is how the drown flies forward or backward.
  • Yaw: Rotation side to side along a line that runs top to bottom. To do this, a drone slows down motors in opposite corners. The rotation of the aircraft is actually a result of the torque from the motors. Think about it like spinning a ball on a flat surface—it tends to curve to the side that it’s spinning.

As aircraft, drones have some strict rules you need to follow. The Federal Aviation Administration has required drones to be registered since 2014. Here are a few quick rules:

  • Stay below 400 feet.
  • Never fly near other aircraft or airports.
  • Keep your drone within eyesight.
  • Temporary flight restrictions are common around sporting events, so don’t fly near them.
  • You can’t fly drones in groups.

So now that you know what drones are, some of the history, what makes them work, and the laws that govern them, go have fun. If you have an interest in drone flying, it can turn into a great career if you get good at it. Drones are used in a lot in film making, but they’re also used in construction to look at hard-to-see spots, in farming to monitor fields, and in search and rescue to find injured or lost people.