(Radio/Remote Control) RC Quadcopters, Multirotors, Multicopters, Hexacopters, Octacopters and Drones are all terms used to describe model aircrafts which in recent years their sales and adoption took off. The term Drone even though widely associated by the public with some of the above aircraft types, sees a lot of opposition from hobbyists, multi-rotor communities and even aviation professionals who are familiar with the correct use of the term.
When we hear the word drone the first thing that comes to mind is a military unmanned aerial unit also known as UAV (See picture below).
But what differentiates a Drone from Model aircraft and why are we confusing the one with the other?
A drone basically refers to unmanned aircrafts that can be flown either autonomously or with the aid of remote operators sitting on the ground and having visual and operational aids as well as telemetry data transmitted to them from the aircraft.
Some of the main characteristics differentiating Drones from model aircrafts are their size, weight, autonomy/flight time, range, payload and their uses.
Some of the main uses of drones are:
- Military operations where they undertake reconnaissance or tactical combat missions
- Military training acting as targets for ground to air and air to air weapons
- Civil operations as well as commercial, where they can be used for logistics, search and rescue, crop monitoring, surveying etc…
RC Model aircraft characteristics
A radio/remote controlled model aircraft would refer to a small flying vehicle that is remotely operated from the ground with the pilot using a radio transmitter and having to maintain visual contact with aircraft.
BMFA is the regulator of remotely controlled aircrafts and there is a lot of information on their website as well as a network of clubs across the UK.
The history of RC model aircrafts is long and has gone a long way since it started. Originally it involved building the aircraft, getting an appropriate propulsion system and seeing the hand made model in the air making from basic circuits to the most advanced aerobatics an aircraft could do. I remember my first scratch build plane took me around 10 months to complete plus a few more months until I was able to purchase all the parts I needed to seeing it fly. Unfortunately after all the hard work that specific plane had 1 take-off and no landing as it came down after a couple of circuits due to my rudder coming lose mid-air.
Basically getting a model, building it, equipping it and flying it needed a variety of skills, time, workshop tools and obviously money.
With the technology advancing however and factories in Asia making parts more affordable we started seeing ARTF kits that involved very little build, and very quickly the focus shifted to getting electrically powered vehicles with smart lightweight electronics in them offering interference free radio control and even stabilisation units to aid the more inexperienced pilots.
The latest advancements brought to us flight controllers with a variety of built in sensors, telemetry, stabilisation, path planning via GPS, compact video transmitters and receivers and this is when all of a sudden a hobby which was actually going through a period of decline saw a massive increase of enthusiasts.
Based on the BMFA Handbook, model aircrafts fall into the following categories:
- Almost Ready To Fly Models (ARTF)
- Ultralight Models
- Multirotors (Tri, Quad, Hex, Octa etc)
- Silent Flight
- Control Line
- Free Flight (Indoor / Outdoor)
- Gas turbine
- up to 7kg, 7kg – 20kg and over 20kg
- I/C Powered or Electric powered
And each of the above categories breaks down into more categories and details about where and how you should fly.
RC quadcopters advertised as Drones
Out of all the multirotors, RC quadcopters are the most popular we see. For a multirotor to fly you need a flight controller computer onboard which basically is responsible for controlling the speed of each motor in order to stabilise the aircraft. Without this basic function, there is no way you can fly one.
There are variety of Flight Controllers priced from £10 up to hundreds of pounds.
Skipping further details about multirotors we need to look into why they are referred to as Drones.
By spending around £1000 you can basically get the same behaviour as a really expensive UAV.
Top that with a screen which in some cases can even be your mobile phone / tablet and you have: Remotely Controlled, aided flight on an aircraft that could even be sent to fly a mission you design yourself on your phone following GPS coordinates while it avoids obstacles on the way and allows you to look around through a remotely controlled camera.
The only limitation I can think of when comparing with commercial or military grade drones, is radio signal range and autonomy of the battery.
So due to those common characteristics, which I must be honest and say that apply to both multirotors as well as fixed wing aircrafts, manufacturers of these devices have decided to use the catchy name of drones and spread panic among the people that don’t know any better and watch or read the news about drones appearing in our skies.
It’s important however, now that panic spreading news aside and as they have become a lot more approachable to consumers, to ensure that laws and rules are followed so we avoid getting a hobby which was going for decades causing very little trouble to be getting endangered of heavy regulation and legislation because some people don’t follow the rules but most importantly a common sense approach in flying safely and respecting themselves as well as the public.