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. 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 model airplanes, we’re more interested in VTOL aircraft.
VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing.
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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.
Drone legal and safety
If you are flying for pay, or any other form of compensation, you must operate under a different set of rules and possess a commercial drone license. We call it the Part 107, it’s not too hard to get, but it will take some time to learn all the rules. We want to help you learn the rules and get your commercial license, check out our drone pilot training material.
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.
Parrot has found a decent place int he market with their consumer drones. Actually, as far as the number of models they produce, they are one of the largest manufacturers around. The Parrot Disco is the larger and more capable fixed wing drone in their line.
Disco breaks our rules a little bit, as it is not a true VTOL craft. It is, essentially, a remote controlled airplane that you can launch by hand, just toss it up and stomp on the throttle. It is able to fly quite slow when you bring it in for landing, requiring just a few feet of clean grass.
Check out the Parrot Disco, with HD camera and self-flying capabilities from $699 today.
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 $68 today.
(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.