How Drones Work

The Most Common UAVs
A DJI Innovations DJI Phantom 2 Vision aerial system drone was demonstrated during a media preview for International CES 2014.
A DJI Innovations DJI Phantom 2 Vision aerial system drone was demonstrated during a media preview for International CES 2014.
© ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Fixed-wing drones are fast and fly far, but rotary models are much more common, in part because they're easier to fly and more stable for purposes like photography. If you want a rotary drone, you'll have dozens of options from which to choose.

On the cheap side, for instance, there's the Hubsan Mini RTF quadcopter, which sells for less than $60. It's so tiny that it will fit in the palm of your hand. After a 40-minute charging session, you'll get about seven minutes of flight time during which you can make the drone do four-way flips and other stunts. You can also capture pictures on a miniscule 0.3-megapixel camera.

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Power Edition is a quadcopter that sells for around $400 online. This drone features upgraded batteries that offer about 36 minutes of flight time. It comes with a free flight control app that you can load to your WiFi-enabled device, such as a tablet or smartphone, letting you control the drone to range of 165 feet (50 meters). It also has a 720p HD video camera that streams video live to your device, giving you a bird's-eye view literally on the fly.

One of the better-known drone manufacturers is DJI, which makes the DJ Phantom series. These drones aren't just for fun — they're intended to give blossoming cinematographers a way to catch amazing high angles without the need for more expensive gear. Some models come with GoPro camera mounts, while others are equipped with onboard cameras of their own.

The FC40 Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter weighs in at just under $1,000. It can fly to more than 2,600 feet (792 meters), with a flight time of roughly 25 minutes. A controller helps you manage the drone's flight, while the app that you load on your phone or tablet manipulates the video and camera capabilities.

With all of these flying contraptions zipping around, it's hard to deny that they seem awfully reminiscent of regular old remote-control helicopters and planes. So what's the difference between those traditional radio-controlled machines and new-age drones?

It has a lot to do with automation and advanced digital features. Whereas traditional remote-controlled devices require constant attention, drones can do amazing things on their own. Program in a GPS location, for example, and a drone can automatically fly itself to that point and then hold its position. Or you can run a so-called "follow me" mode, and the drone will follow you around, tracking you by sensing the signals from your phone.

Modern drones are equipped with a whole slate of similar fun and useful features. Of course, none of those capabilities are worth much if the thing can't get off of the ground.

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