How Do Drones Work?

how do drones work
Photo by Ian Baldwin

At one point, you may have wondered: How do drones work? Well, whether you own one, are thinking of getting one, or are just interested in drone technology, this article will tell you all about it.


Drones are the product of flight technology. Everything comes together from the rotors to the body and the entire frame layout to defy gravity and give you directional control.

In no time, we will bring you up to speed on the technology that powers these unique aircraft. You will learn about the components and how drones achieve different motions while in flight. Alright then, let’s get you started.

The Drone Flight Technology

Drone technology saw the light in the 1900s, but the concept dates even further back. The quadcopter configuration is the earliest form of what we call drones today.

Though initially developed as a gyroplane, the quadcopter technology saw adoption in helicopters before getting to drones. You must understand quadcopter technology to go further on how drones work.

In 1916, after the outbreak of World War I, the first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) took flight. Dubbed the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target, these drones were primarily military crafts.

British engineer Archibald Low used a radio guidance system to control this first set of drones. However, things became even more interesting in military drone technology a few years later.

The US Navy and the British independently developed newer drones with radio control. Subsequent years saw widespread adoption in the military worldwide.

The brief overview shows that radio signal was the core element in controlling drones in flight. But, how did these machines take to the air in the first place?

Of course, controlling the direction was crucial, but having the needed propulsion was equally vital. Early drones had the shape of aircraft and shared similar propulsion systems.

A similar design has carried over to this day but has gotten better. Advanced propulsion systems have sprung up for better flight performance and higher altitudes.

If you are wondering how do drones work, you should take your mind off the quad-rotor drones and look at other variants. Quadcopters are unmanned, but they use different flight dynamics than the bigger-sized UAVs.

Components: The Foundation of a Working Drone

As much as the principles of lift and thrust are essential to drone flight, everything builds upon the components. Popular opinion demands that you make your UAV as lightweight as possible.

How do you make the drone lightweight, if not through the components? Answering the question (how do drones work?) will not be complete if we do not address the building parts.

Aerodynamics plays a crucial role in drone flight. We know that anything that flies is subject to the opposing forces of the air. On that account, it must generate enough energy to overcome the opposition.

That is where material choice and design come into play. UAV manufacturers design the outer body to pose as little resistance as possible to the airflow. They have smooth curves and edges to reduce drag or friction.

Now that we have established the crucial aerodynamic aspect let us look at the different sectional components.

The Frame

Popular materials used in drone construction include Carbon Fiber-reinforced Composites (CFRC), Aluminum, and thermoplastics. The goal is to keep the frame lightweight and strong.

Nevertheless, wood is also a popular material for more affordable drones. It might not be as robust as the materials mentioned above, but it gets the job done.

The frame holds other components, hence the need for strong materials. It is essential to how drones work and maneuver their way during flight.

You wouldn’t want your craft falling apart in the air. Learning about these parts might seem cliché, but you will need the knowledge to appreciate the working principle better.

Thermoplastics have good strength and low density, but high-performance drones use CFRC. The material gives better rigidity and light weight to the UAVs.

Motors and Propellers: The Powerhouse of a Drone

Moving on from the frame, we have the motors and propellers, the core components that give flight capabilities to any drone. How high and how fast your drone goes, mostly on the motors and propellers.

Typical low-flight drones use conventional electric motors that can either be brushed or brushless. The usual copper windings and permanent magnet are present as well.

Brushed motors work best for smaller drones, but better to switch to brushless as they increase in size. Notwithstanding, military drones (the big boys) may or may not use electric motors for propulsion.

Reciprocating or rotary piston engines are widely used for military UAVs. Other propulsion systems include turboshaft engines, turbofan engines, and turbojet engines.

Military UAV manufacturers design drones like airplanes or fighter jets in combat scenarios. Consequently, they needed powerful engines to push through and reach the needed speeds.  

Before we leave this section, let’s talk about engine housing. None of our attempts at answering your question, how do drones work will matter if the engine heat is not contained.

To keep the engine heat from affecting other components, manufacturers use high thermal conductive materials like Aluminum.

Rotor blades are part of the propulsion system. The energy from the motors or engines goes to the blades, turning them at high speeds for lift.

The materials for the blades are usually lightweight and strong. Manufacturers usually use carbon fiber-reinforced composites for high-end drones or thermoplastics for affordable ones.

Sensors: The Core Component of How Drones Work

Remember that drones are unmanned. Control usually comes from a remote controller or the onboard computer.

Now, we have come to the most crucial aspect of answering your question, how do drones work? Sensors capture flight data and send it to the remote controller. They also receive commands from the controller and make changes where needed.

Remote controllers allow real-time control of UAVs. On the other hand, board computers rely on preprogrammed commands to guide the drone.

There are different sensors in a drone, including tilt, current, voltage, GPS, magnetic, and airflow sensors. They work independently to monitor different parameters in flight.

The tilt sensors are probably the most crucial. They are responsible for balancing the drone during flight. Also, they could receive information from other sensors like the airflow meters to achieve better stability.

Microcontrollers and Accessories

The microchip industry is fast finding its way to drones. As the need for more sophistication arises, chip giants like Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia are taking on UAVs.

Software and robotics engineers are programming drones for different automated tasks. They have developed onboard computers that can take readings from different sensors and adjust to the preprogrammed settings.

With these developments, can we say that real-time remote control is becoming obsolete? Of course not; real-time control is necessary even with advanced autonomous systems.

The last component of drones you will likely see often are the accessories, especially the cameras. While manufacturers use cameras to take real-time visual information for sophisticated flights, you can give them a different purpose.

Using the cameras for photography and video coverage is just one of the ways to make money with drones. Notwithstanding, let’s not stray from the topic we have today.

Now that you have adequate knowledge of the components, it’s time to explain how they come together for flight. Let’s delve deeper to answer your question: How do drones work?

How do Drones Work? : The Quadcopter Case Study

The quadcopter is a type of drone and probably the one you will often see. Quad, of course, points to the four-rotor blades mounted in an X-pattern.

The four rotors or props generate the force needed for lift, but they do much more. Flexible control of the drone comes from the independent action of the blades.

Each prop has a motor powering it, independent of the other three. This design allows the pilot to vary the speed of any blade to achieve a specific purpose.

To achieve stability, one pair of the props (diagonally) spin in the same direction while the remaining pair rotates in the opposite direction. If you spin all four rotors at the same speed, the drone will stay in place.

You can see how the components we mentioned earlier come together for flight. The motors control the blades, while the frame holds everything in place.

This equilibrium is crucial to the working of a drone. If any goes out of alignment, piloting the UAV becomes challenging.

Let’s explore further by looking at the principal motions of a drone.

The Four Cardinal Drone Motions in Flight

During flight, you can implement four primary motions on the drone. The remote controller transmits your commands to the onboard computer, which then makes changes to the motors or cameras.

The following are the four principal drone movements:


Throttling in drones refers to upward and downward movement. If you run all the propellers at normal speed, you will have a downward motion.

On the other hand, if you increase the speed of the props, the drone will climb in altitude. Maintain a fairly consistent speed, and it will hover at the given height, neither going up nor coming down.


The pitch refers to the forward or backward motion of the drone. Run the two rear props at a higher speed, and the drone will more or pitch forward.

Likewise, the drone will move backwards if you run the front propellers at a higher speed. Do not forget that the onboard computer controls the individual motors in the drone.


In simple terms, roll refers to either the left or the right, and this motion is how you turn the drone or move in sideways.

That is the beauty of quadcopter drones. You can move them to the left or right without initiating a turn.

To get a roll, you must vary the speed of the side propellers. If you increase the speed of the right props, the drone will lean or move to the left.

Consequently, the drone will lean or move to the right if you vary the speeds of the left props.


It is possible to rotate the drone about its vertical axis, and turning to the right or the left is called the Yawning motion.

Achieving this motion boils down to the speeds of the diagonal props. The drone will rotate clockwise if you increase the speed of the two props on a right diagonal.

On the other hand, anticlockwise motion is achieved when you increase the speeds of the two props on the left diagonal.

All these motions are but simple twists on the controller joysticks. Hence, we will round up this section by looking at the remote controllers.

The Drone Controller is Where All the Fun Is

As mentioned earlier, the controller transmits radio signals to the receiver. Embedded in those signals are commands for the drone to follow.

You might hear the name, drone radio transmitter or radio controller. Don’t worry: they refer to the same thing.

Many drone controllers do not have screens for first-person-view (FPV) control. However, they have adapters that allow users to connect their smartphones and use them as screens.

The major components, including the sensors, batteries, receivers, propellers, and motors, wait for the command from the controller. There are different parts to a controller, but let’s touch on these two.

  • Right Stick: Commands for the roll and pitch of your drone are embedded in this feature. As a result, twisting the stick moves the drone right/left or forward and backward accordingly.
  • Left Stick: The left stick is what you need to control the yawning and throttling motion of the drone. You can throttle the drone up or let it hover. Also, you can rotate it clockwise or anticlockwise.

The drone controller is as crucial as the other drone components. Answering your question of how do drones work would not be complete if we did not touch them.

While we have touched on many aspects, the underlying principle of drone flight is lift/thrust. The propellers must first develop enough energy to overcome gravity.


How do drones work? The first step is for the propellers to generate enough lift to overcome gravity. Then, the onboard receiver relays the commands from the controller to the motors for varying motions.

The concept is not overly complicated, but you will need basic knowledge of physics to understand it. Nevertheless, this article has enough information to put you on the right track.

Whether you are pursuing a project or want to read for knowledge, you just got a perfect start.

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