There are many types of drones out there. The current idea is to put four or more propellers on a craft and soar it into the air. While these aircraft fuselage designs are not made to help with flight, the propellers do all the work, there are machines that have a more traditional airplane design, with wings – we call them fixed-wing drones.
A quick trip to the local hobby shop and you’ll find many model airplanes, you might call them RC airplanes. That’s kind of it, folks, the way we define a ‘drone’ today, your old model airplane, designed with fixed wings, is a drone. Of course, what we want to look at today is not the traditional model airplanes, we’re more interested in VTOL aircraft.
VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing.
Why trust Drone Rush?
I’ve been a fan of flight since a young age; while I’ve had few opportunities at the helm of manned aircraft, the hours on my fleet of drones continue to grow. I enjoy putting cameras into the sky, silky smooth aerial imagery makes me happy. My goal is to help all pilots enjoy flight legally and safely.
The design of a Fixed Wing craft
As explained, we consider a fixed wing drone to be a machine that has working wings, like an airplane, but also has propellers that can vertically launch, land and hover the machine. We’ll bend these rules a little bit for our list below, but at least you know what to expect.The importance of drones like this is more than you’d expect. Specifically, fixed wing craft typically have higher travel speeds and much greater battery life. Also, they can be heavier, depending on the build.
The basic science is easy, as a fixed wing craft moves through the air, the wings carry the weight of the craft, the propellers simply propel the airplane forward. This requires far less power to do than to outright suspend the craft in the air by propeller power alone.
With enough power to vertically launch the drone, that same motor can drag the craft through the air at much higher speeds than a quadcopter design.
The down side, there is a minimum travel speed for a fixed wing craft. I mean, you can hover by propeller or soar using the wings, but if the wings are employed, they have a minimum and maximum stall speed.
If you need to cover some ground, fixed wing craft are the way to go. If you need to stick out a great photograph, the battery life and slower speeds of a multi-rotor drone are worth the compromise for stability.
Yuneec Firebird FPV
Announced at CES 2018, this new fixed-wing craft is still a short while before it lands on store shelves. While we wait, we can be excited for this fairly large machine that collapses down nice and small for transport. Long flight times, high speeds and RTH functionality make this a fun and safe option for your flying pleasure. Stay tuned for more as the Firebird FPV nears its retail launch.
Autel Robotics Kestrel
This may not be the backyard flyer you were thinking of, but Autel Robotics has had us pretty excited over their commercial class VTOL drones for a while now. They were working on a more consumer friendly machine, called the DragonFish, but the Kestrel is their airplane with articulating propellers that is on the market.
Designed for getting a view of a large area of land, and scooting over it quickly, Kestrel is not something we can just buy at Amazon. Sorry.
The Parrot Disco is an early drone from the French company. In those days, everything they built was made of foam and plastics, which made for very light-weight, affordable, and resilient aircraft, but did not lend to long-term reliability. The flying wing offers some fun features, such as the ability to automatically fly a holding pattern, and the FPV experience is good fun, though the camera is very dated at this point.
In a world with hundreds of RC airplanes to choose from, the Parrot Disco offered an FPV camera experience on a fixed-wing drone.
Another drone you will not be purchasing from Amazon, the Airbus Vahana is a line of passenger drones. One and two-seater craft may be headed to a helipad near you in a few years. Breaking our own rules again, this is a VTOL craft, but it is only in the testing stages so far. Public demos and rides are a long way out – we’re trusting Airbus to not let us down by putting their drone on this list, and then not producing the goods.
The easiest to get your hands on entry to our fixed wing list is the Parrot Swing. This is a toy class drone that offers a pretty manageable VTOL experience. Swing offers more of a fun and acrobatic experience than the stable flight experience you might have expected, and gets up to 19 mph.
Check out the Parrot Swing for $38 today.
The WingtraOne, from Wingtra, is a versatile VTOL craft, taking off and landing on its tail, but flying in a fixed-wing configuration. Most of the other craft on this list are consumer friendly craft, while a consumer might love to play with the WingtraOne, its purpose, and price tag, better suit it to commercial customers. Optional payloads include up to 42MP full-frame cameras, inspection grade RGB camera rigs and PPK GNSS receivers for 1cm accuracy on mapping jobs up to 31 miles of flight range, or about 400 hectares of ground mapping in an hour of flight.
Wingtra WingtraOne runs from around $20,000 and up, and is a custom order drone, contact them here.
(That’s ^ a real airplane, but you can get a toy version of it.) We do not cover these sorts of craft on our site, but I can’t complete an article like this without saying again, RC airplane are the original fixed wing drones. The addition of live video streaming, or even just a camera itself, is a decent way to differentiate between an RC plane and a ‘drone’ as we call them today, but they’re all unmanned aerial vehicles.
We know a team that does cover these machines, head on over to Flite Test to see all about RC airplanes.
There are a great many VTOL style drones in development these days. Most of them are military or other non-consumer focused machines. Fixed wing flight is undoubtedly the more efficient, unless I misunderstand the last hundred years of airplanes vs helicopters. However, helicopters are invaluable in ways that aircraft cannot compete.
What it boils down to, if you asked “can’t it be both?” when learning the differences between a multi-rotor drone and an airplane, a modern fixed wing drone might be the machine for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between RC airplanes and fixed-wing drones?
Ultimately, there is no difference, fixed-wing drones are just a newer generation of RC airplanes. One major difference is that traditional RC airplanes focus on the experience of flight, where most fixed-wing drones focus on putting a camera into the sky. Beyond that, RC airplane are predominantly for hobby flight, fixed-wing drones are most common in commercial and military use. If you ignore the uses and build purposes, an airplane is an airplane, right?
Do I need a license to fly a fixed-wing drone?
I hope you don’t read this question on all our posts, as the answer is always the same: The FAA in the United States requires licensing for your flight situation, not your drone. If you will be paid to fly, or will make money off of the photos and videos you capture from the sky, that is a commercial operation, you will need your Part 107 certification. If you are flying for fun, you will require your TRUST certificate.
My fixed wing drone can fly up to 5 miles away in FPV, is that legal?
The FAA has one simple rule that applies here, you must always be able to see your drone. If you plan to use the FPV goggles, you will need a Visual Observer – someone standing by your side that can easily communicate obstacles with you, and who will remain in visual line-of-sight (VLOS) to the drone. From there, you must apply for a waiver from the FAA for flights beyond visual line-of-site (BVLOS.)
What is a VTOL aircraft?
A VTOL aircraft is a machine that has the ability to take-off and land without forward movement, like a drone or helicopter, but also one that transitions to forward flight where ‘airplane’ wings provide the lift. Some of these craft have propellers that point up and separate propellers facing forward, while other VTOL craft manage to tilt the propellers to handle both tasks. Bottom line, VTOL are almost precisely what the name implies, vertical take off and landing airplanes.
Why do we need VTOL aircraft?
Simply put, drones and helicopters – aircraft with vertical propulsion systems – can operate with minimal space on the ground for take off and landing, but are inefficient for horizontal movement. Airplanes move horizontally very well, spanning the globe at high speeds with ease, but they need long runways for take off and landing. We do not need VTOL craft, but they attempt to capitalize on the benefits of each type of aircraft. There is a loss of efficiency, as one system effectively makes things harder for the other, but they’re still the best of both worlds.