What is a drone and how do drones work is answered here in very easy to understand language. Drone technology is constantly evolving as new innovation and big investment is bringing more advanced drones to the market every few months.
In this article, I will discuss UAV technology on one of the most popular drones on the market which has plenty of top drone technology. Most drones will have very similar systems incorporated.
Unmanned aerial vehicle technology and science in the widest aspect covers everything from the aerodynamics of the drone, materials in the manufacture of the physical UAV, to the circuit boards, chipset and software which are the brains of the drone.
One of the most popular drones on the market is the Phantom 2 Vision+. While slightly old now, it uses plenty of advanced technology and it is very popular with professional cinematographers. This UAV is ideal to explain drone technology because it has everything in one package. It includes the UAV, gimbal and camera and uses some of the top drone technology on the market today.
In only a few months since writing this article, some new and highly advanced drones such as the DJI Mavic, Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2 have come to the market. The fast pace of drone technological innovation is tremendous.
How Drones Work
A typical unmanned aircraft is made of light composite materials to reduce weight and increase maneuverability. This composite material strength allows military drones to cruise at extremely high altitudes. Drones are equipped with different state of the art technology such as infra-red cameras(military UAV), GPS and laser (military UAV). Drones can be controlled by remote control system or a ground cockpit.
Drones come in a wide variety of sizes, with the large drone mostly used for military purposes such as the Predator drone, other smaller drones which can be launched by hand, to other unmanned aircraft which require short runways. An unmanned aerial vehicle system has two parts, the drone itself and the control system.
The nose of the unmanned aerial vehicle is where all the sensors and navigational systems are present. The rest of the body is complete innovation since there is no loss for space to accommodate humans and also light weight. The engineering materials used to build the drone are highly complex composites which can absorb vibration which decreases the noise produced.
What Is A Drone – UAV Technology
Below we examine the science and drone technology behind the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ UAV. Another terrific article is a drone components overview. This gives you a breakdown of the individual components seen in most drones.
Radar Positioning & Return Home
- The flight radar displays the current position and location of the drone in relation to the pilot.
- Exceeding the control range of the remote control will trigger ‘Return-to-Home’, meaning the UAV will automatically fly back to its takeoff point and land safely.
Gyro Stabilization, IMU And Flight Controllers
Gyro stabilization technology is one of the components which gives the drone it’s smooth flight capabilities. The gyroscope needs to work almost instantly to the forces moving against the drone. The gyroscope provides essential navigational information to the central flight controller.
The inertial measurement unit (IMU) works by detecting the current rate of acceleration using one or more accelerometers. The IMU detects changes in rotational attributes like pitch, roll and yaw using one or more gyroscopes. Some IMU include a magnetometer to assist with calibration against orientation drift.
The Gyroscope is a component of the IMU and the IMU is an essential component of the drones flight controller. The flight controller is the central brain of the drone.
Here is a terrific article which covers gyro stabilization and IMU technology in drones.
Onscreen Real-Time Flight Parameters
Keep track of current flight telemetry and see what your drone sees on your mobile device.
In order to increase flight safety and prevent accidental flights in restricted areas, the new firmware for the Phantom UAV series includes a “No Fly Zone feature”. These no fly zones have been divided into two categories: A and B.
GPS Ready To Fly Mode Drone Technology
When the compass s is calibrated, the drone then seeks the location of GPS satellites. When more than 6 are found, it allows the drone to fly in “Ready To Fly” Mode.
Internal Compass & Failsafe Function
Allows the UAV and remote control system to know exactly it’s flight location. Calibration of the Compass is required to set a home point. The home point is the location where the drone will return to in case of loss of signal between the drone and the remote control system. This is also know as “fail-safe function”.
FPV (First Person View) Drone Technology
What FPV means is “First Person View” which means a video camera is mounted on the unmanned aerial vehicle and broadcasts the live video to the pilot on the ground so the pilot is flying the aircraft as if he/she was on-board the aircraft instead of looking at the craft from the pilot’s actual ground position.
FPV allows the unmanned aircraft to fly much higher and further than you can from the looking at the aircraft from the ground. FPV control allows for more precise flying around obstacles especially with unmanned aerial vehicles which can easily fly indoors and through forests via FPV where you would not be able to see obstacles from a fixed position.
This FPV technology using radio signal to transmit and receive the live video.
The drone has a multiband wireless FPV transmitter built in along with an antennae. Depending on the drone, the receiver of the live video signals can be either the Remote Controller , Computer, Tablet or Smartphone device.
This live video feed is related to the strength of the signal between the ground control on the drone. The latest drone such as the DJI Mavic and Phantom 4 Pro can transmit live video up to 4.1 miles (7km). The Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2 use the latest DJI Lightbridge 2 transmission system to allow you to travel further and see more clearly. The integrated controller and intelligent algorithms set a new standard for wireless HD image transmission by lowering latency and increasing maximum range and reliability.
FPV Over 4G / LTE Networks
In 2016, a new live video which transmits over the 4G / LTE network providing an unlimited range and low latency video. The Sky Drone FPV 2 comprises of a camera module, a data module and a 4G / LTE modem.
Firmware And Flight Assistant Port
The flight control system communicates with a PC Assistant through a Micro-USB cable. This allows configuration of the UAV and upgrade the firmware.
A very simple description of a drone is that it is a flying computer with a camera attached. Drones have firmware which can be updated to fix bugs and add new features.
LED Flight Indicators
These are found at the front and the rear of the drone. The front LEDs are for indicating where the nose of the drone is. The rear LEDs flight indicators light up to show the drones current flight status when the flight battery is turned on.
UAV Remote Control System
This is the wireless communication device using the 5.8 GHz frequency band. The drone and the remote control system should already be paired when it leaves the factory.
UAV Remote Control Receiver
The location of the 5.8 GHz receiver technology link button is under the UAV.
Range Extender UAV Technology
This is a wireless communication device which operates within the 2.4 GHz frequency. It is used to extend the range of communication between the smartphone or tablet and the drone in an open unobstructed area. Transmission distance can reach up to 700 meters. Each range extender has a unique MAC address and network name (SSID).
Some of the latest drones out of the box can fly using range to a distance of up to 3.1 miles (5km). Products such as FPV range extenders are very popular which can push the distance even further.
Smartphone App Featuring Ground Station Function
Smartphone App from Google Play or the Apple Store. The app allows for full control of the drone. There is a specific feature called ground station function on the Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter. This allows for flight missions by placing location waypoints and setting waypoint altitude and overall speed. The UAV should the be able to execute the flight mission automatically.
High Performance Camera
The Phantom 2 Vision+ carries an extremely high quality camera and a removable 4GB micro SD card. It shoots full HD video at 1080p/30 frames per second and 720p/60 frames per second, giving you crystal clear video and the option for slow motion shots.
The latest drones from DJI, Walkera, Yuneec and many other manufacturers now include cameras which can shoot film in 4k video and can take 12 megapixel stills.
The latest DJI Zenmuse Z3 is an integrated aerial zoom camera and is optimized for still photography. The Zenmuse has a 7x zoom lens which is a first in aerial cameras. The Walkera Voyager 4 comes with an incredible 18x zoom camera.
Many of the earlier drones used cameras which were not fully suitable for aerial filming. Many of these aerial videos had barrel distortion because of the wide angle lens. The latest drones such as DJI Inspire 1, Phantom 3 Professional and Phantom 4 have a camera which is specifically designed for aerial filming and photography.
Gimbals & Tilt Control
Gimbal technology is vital to capture quality aerial photos, film or 3D imagery. The gimbal allows for any vibration from the drone to not reach the camera. The gimbal allows you to tilt the camera while in flight, creating unique angles. It uses a 3 axial stabilized gimbal and has 2 working modes. Non-FPV mode and FPV mode.
Practically all the latest drones have integrated gimbals and cameras. The leader in aerial gimbal technology is DJI with their Zenmuse range. You can read this full article about drone gimbal design and components here.
Cinematography Drones Without Gimbals
At CES 2017 a company called Ambarella announced the H22 chip for cameras in drones. This H22 chip allows the camera to film in 4K HD video and includes electronic image stabilization, removing the need for gimbals.
Drones With Sensors
Multispectral, Lidar, Photogrammetry and Thermal sensors are now being used on drones to provide 3D models of buildings and landscape; Digital Elevation Maps (DEMS) of land, and provide precision data on the health of crops, flowers, fauna, shrubs and trees.
In 2016, we started to see drone using Time-of-Flight 3D depth camera sensors which can be used on their own or with the above sensors to provide solutions. ToF depth ranging camera sensors can be used for object scanning, indoor navigation, obstacle avoidance, gesture recognition, tracking objects, measuring volumes, reactive altimeters, 3D photography, augmented reality games and much more.
With Lidar and photogrammetry mapping, the drone will be programmed to fly over an particular area using autonomous GPS waypoint navigation. The camera on the drone will be taking photographs at 0.5 or 1 second intervals. These photos are then stitched together using specialized software to create the 3D image.
DroneDeploy is one of the leaders in the creation of 3D mapping software for the agriculture sector. Their latest software called Fieldscanner will work with any of the latest DJI drones such as the Mavic Pro.
Helps to keep the stabilizer and camera connected to the unmanned aircraft.
Video Editing Software
Having an excellent quality video software is essential for post processing. Adobe DNG raw means that all the original image information is retained for later processing. An Adobe lens profile for barrel distortion removal is available for the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ camera.
Operating Systems In Drone Technology
Some unmanned aircraft use MS Windows operating systems. However more and more UAV innovators are now using different versions of Linux. The Linux Foundation recently launched the Dronecode project. The Dronecode Project is an open source, collaborative project that brings together existing and future open source unmanned aerial vehicle projects under a nonprofit structure governed by The Linux Foundation. The result will be a common, shared open source platform for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
Drones in some ways are flying computers. With an operating system, flight controllers, main boards with programmable code, they can also be hacked into. Like a computer, you can also protect your drone from hackers.
Latest Innovative Technological Drones
The latest advanced drones with patented technologies are the following;
- DJI Phantom 4 Pro – with “Vision” collision avoidance technology. Multi purpose drone including aerial filming, photography and photogrammetry.
- DJI Inspire 2 – Patented design and motors. Multi purpose drone with gimbals for professional aerial filming, photography, photogrammetry, multispectral and thermal imaging.
- Yuneec Typhoon H Pro – uses the patented Intel “Realsense” collision avoidance technology. Great for professional aerial photography and filming
- 3DR Solo – multi purpose drone and can be used for professional aerial photography, filming, photogrammetry and thermal imaging.
Intelligent Flight Systems
All these latest drones have intelligent flight controllers and modes such as Follow Me, Active Tracking, Waypoints, Return To Home and many others. The latest Phantom 4 Pro from DJI has the most autonomous intelligent flight modes of any drone.
- Active Track (Profile, Spotlight, Circle)
- Draw Waypoints
- Terrain Follow Mode
- Tripod Mode
- Gesture Mode
- S-Mode (Sport)
- P-Mode (Position)
- A-Mode (Attitude)
- Beginner Mode
- Course Lock
- Home Lock
- Obstacle Avoidance
Drones have so many terrific uses. When you mount a camera or sensors such as LiDAR, Thermal, ToF, Multispectral and many others, then the range of uses for drones just keeps expanding. Here is a nice list of drone uses.
Top Videos On Drone Technology
Below I have 2 videos which explain more about drone technology. The first video is by top UAV scientist Raffaello D’Andrea who gives us a terrific understanding of the software science behind UAV technology. He discusses the science of algorithm, control theory and model based design.
The below video explains both the present and future of science and technology behind military unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator and the Reaper.
Personally, I am much more interested and fascinated in the drone technology and it’s uses in everyday life to assist different businesses, professions and for the hobbyist. Up to a few years ago, quite a big of the technology from military drones made their way into the consumer and business drones.
In the past 2 years, we have seen massive investment in drones especially in the business and consumer drone sector. Drone technology and innovation are really leaped forwarded in the past 2 years.