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This page will cover flying toys as well as larger and more serious drones.
In recent years, drones, both amateur and professional, and flying toys of various kinds have been made possible at reasonable cost by the availability of lithium batteries with a high power to weight ratio, and cheap control electronics and sensors. Particularly with toys, damaging crashes are common, but other faults may also arise.
- Be sure you know how to fly your device safely. Rotating propeller blades can be very dangerous, especially the larger ones.
- There are strict laws in many territories governing the use of drones and quadcopters, as well as radio controlled model aircraft of all types. See Legal below.
The idea of a machine which screws itself into the air dates back to Leonardo da Vinci in 1493, but it was another 450 years before the first practical helicopter took to the air.
Unfortunately for Leonardo, Sir Isaac Newton had yet to formulate his Laws of Motion (published only in 1687). According to his 3rd law (action and reaction are equal and opposite), in forcing its rotor blades to turn against air resistance, the engine of a helicopter necessarily applies and equal and opposite turning force on the aircraft's body. So nearly all helicopters have a tail rotor to counteract this turning force. If a helicopter looses its tail rotor it spins out of control - the chances of surviving such an accident are very slim indeed.
Just a few helicopters and nearly all drones and flying toys counteract the turning force in a different way. They have two or more rotors spinning in opposite directions. The Boeing Chinook is an example. Some helicopters and many toys have two counter-rotating rotors on the same spindle. Quadcopters have 4 rotors but you can have any number, provided its an even number, and provided you make half of them spin one way and the other half spin the other way in order to balance out the twisting force.
A great advantage of having multiple rotors is that you can very simply manoeuvre your drone by deliberately unbalancing the rotors slightly. Applying a little more power to the two rear rotors of a quadcopter causes it to tip forward and so start moving forward. You can do the same with the rear two to make it move backwards, or two side rotors to make it move sideways. Equally, you can apply slightly more power to the two clockwise rotors to unbalance the twisting forces and make it turn anticlockwise, or vice versa. This is known as yaw.
A hand-held controller with two joysticks is normally provided. Typically one controls forwards, backwards and sideways motion, and the other the overall power and yaw. A radio link transmits commands to the device.
Model helicopters have two concentric counter-rotating rotors. Yaw is achieved by increasing the power to one and decreasing it to the other. A small propeller on the tail pointing upwards (unlike nearly all full size helicopters) tips the craft forwards or backwards to control the motion.
You may come across a flying toy simply consisting of a ball with a pair of counter-rotating rotors. An infra-red sensor in the bottom detects the proximity of the ground and boosts the power to keep it airborne.
The more sophisticated quadcopters and drones have a variety of sensors. A camera is common, which may record to an SDCard or transmit real-time video to the controller or a smartphone app. An air pressure sensor allows it to roughly maintain a given height, making it quite a lot easier to control. There may be a magnetometer to enable it to maintain a given magnetic compass heading, or a proximity sensor to enale it to make an automatic soft landing. A GPS module may be included, allowing it to follow a predetermined path or to automatically return to base. A variety of sensors may be included to implement a "follow me" function to film your sports activity.
Legal restrictions on the use of airborne devices such as drones will vary from one country to another.
- In the UK you need a licence if your device is over 250g. See Drones: how to fly them safely and legally.