Big ones, small ones. Flying ones, underwater ones. What are these things, what do they do, and where in the world does someone buy one? These are all things you will know more about by the end of this post!
Many of you have already experienced drones of some kind. However, you may not know just how extensive their types, sizes, capabilities, or costs (Or cost savings!) can be.
Either way, the actual definition for a drone is "an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers." (MERRIAM WEBSTER) These are going to be devices controlled mostly by a very small onboard computer called a "flight controller" with various inputs sent via remote control by a human correspondent. Sometimes these are also completely automated flights as well, with the human element there mostly to oversee in case of any problems.
You may have noticed that this definition, aside from the flight controller, does not limit drones to the air. In fact, one of the amazing things about drones is the many places that they can be made for, and go! This can even include places far too dangerous for humans, making them ideal for pulling off dangerous missions safely.
That being said, let's talk about what that really means!
There are many, many forms of drones, as I've already stated. The first one that comes to most peoples minds when they hear the word “Drone” (Myself included, when I'm honest!) is the Quadcopter.
This is an unmanned aircraft, usually (but not always) on the smaller size and is almost always under 55lb, with four motors and propellers. This is the most common drone, as it is incredibly versatile, can be made lightweight for ease of transport. Or be made heavier, for more durability, flight time, and the ability to carry more components.
In all actuality however, a drone can have any number of propellers or motors, and can be almost any size. The quadcopter I mentioned here is just the most common example of what is called a “rotorcraft.”
Another type of unmanned aerial craft, would be what is called a "fixed wing" drone. This is much more akin to your regular airplane, and usually resembles one in most ways. Mostly, this is what you see when military drones are mentioned. (Fun fact, the SR71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane actually had a fixed wing drone often strapped to it's back... as early as 1964!)
Most fixed wing drones are built for much longer flight times, as they rely on regular propellers but more importantly gliding, rather than only rotary propeller force to keep them aloft. That being said, many smaller size fixed wing drones still use front or back propellers, much like an older style prop plane. The benefits of these can be their extremely long flight times, ability to carry more weight in the form of sensors or other packages needed for different missions, and often times the quietness of their use compared to their more noisy propeller based relatives.
There are a couple more types of unmanned craft that need mentioning here, that are also under the umbrella of drones. Those would be Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) and the Unmanned Ground Vehicle. (UGV) While these aren't often considered as drones, they still technically are under the same definition of an unmanned vehicle. Even an RC car can technically be called a UGV! They actually have many similarities to the other drones however, accepting for the fact that they are ground and water based, respectively, and as such use different propellant methods. As far as uses, control methods, and being unmanned however they can be very similar, or very different products.
Now that I've got you excited for what drones are and what they can do, and how they are beginning to change and influence the very real market of technology and data usage, you may be wondering about the next big question: Where can I get one!? That is an easy, but also complicated answer. You can get them just about anywhere that hobby RC things are sold... But your quality and where you shop, as well as how much you spend and what you can find, will differ massively based on what you are trying to do with it. Obviously, you won't be finding a military drone at your mom and pops RC shop down the street!
So, do you need a drone that can take movie level video? You may need the expensive $10,000 DJI inspire, or maybe even something more. You just want 4K video that can be used for all sorts of things though? You could go as cheap as a $130 "EACHINE E520" of Amazon, but you're going to be losing some of the features and ease of use. Personally though, if you want full features and great reliability you may want something along the lines of the DJI Mavic, or something similar, costing closer to $800. That seems to be the consumer to light commercial middle end at the moment of me writing this. And these are just the video drones! Average racing drones can also go anywhere from about $150 on the low end, to $900 for something top of the line.
And that's only two types of aerial drones! Underwater drones tend to be around $1500 and up, while military and serious construction drones can go anywhere from $10,000 all the way into the millions.
Now, on the other hand, there's another option. You can also build your very own drone! If there's a need and you can't find a prebuilt drone for it, BUILD IT. Sometimes it's even far cheaper to build your own, especially once you need something more specialized.
There are many, many, many parts and manufacturers to choose from these days, and sometimes this is the best way to make exactly what it is you need, provided you have some technical skills with soldering and some basic PC skills to set up software. But if you need a drone with 10 motors big enough to lift a human? Build it! You need a drone smaller than your hand that takes amazing video and can fly itself, but don't see what you want on Amazon? Build it! You need a drone that can land, and then roll on wheels for some reason? Build it!
Basically, if there's a need and you can't find a prebuilt drone for it, it can still be done. Sometimes it's even far cheaper to build your own, especially once you need something more specialized. On the other end though as well, you can also use all of the highest grade components to make something truly special... But it won't be cheap! As I may have mentioned though, the possibilities are practically endless in this exciting new world!
So, you know now what drones are, what capabilities they have, and what they can do. You know that it's possible to build them, and also to get just about any specialty need out of them by doing so. Your next step is to go get a cheap one from your favorite retailer, and just play around! You will quickly see the allure of this exciting new field, whether it's hobby or commercial, I'm sure. In the meantime, enjoy your newfound knowledge and happy droning!