Drones have become so common that you can walk into most stores and buy one off the shelf. And just like most things in life, there are many different types of drones.
Each drone type varies in cost and your ability to fly. If you’re going to make flying quadcopters your new hobby, then you need to understand these types as well as their benefits and drawbacks.
For example, have you ever heard/read the acronym “RTF”? How about “BNF”? And finally, “ARF”?
If you have and you don’t know what they mean, then this article was designed for you.
What you might not know is the fact that drones are not recent technology. The military, for one, has been using drones usually for surveillance.
What captured the broader market and caused the popularity of drones are the quadcopters.
In other articles of this site, you might find that the term ‘quadcopter' is used interchangeably with ‘drone.' We will not do that in this article because quadcopters are just one of the sub-types of drones.
Since this post will aim to show the different types of drones, then we should be careful of the terms that we will use. As such, let’s talk first about the other names of drones (so we can avoid using quadcopters).
We’ll dedicate this article to talking about all three types as well as what they mean for the average flyer. Sit back, relax, and let’s get started.
Drones by Other Names
Instead of using “quadcopters” as an alternate term for drones, we will use two abbreviations – UAS and UAV.
UAS stands for unmanned aerial systems while UAV means unmanned aerial vehicle.
UAS and UAVs pertain to any aircraft that can fly without a pilot in it. It operates either autonomously or through a remote control (RC) on the ground. The military, however, prefers to use the term UAS.
Now that we've cleared that one out let's proceed with the types of drones.
Categories of Drones
To better understand the types of drones, they are categorized in various ways. It could be based on the packaging or the kind of technology used to keep the UAV flying.
Another less familiar categories are the UAVs ability, size, and range. For each category, you will find different types of drones. Let’s proceed by adding more abbreviations in your drone vocabulary.
1. Based on Packaging
We’ve picked this first among other categories of drones that we’ll discuss because its drone types are easy to understand.
The following types are based on what's included with your drone and how ready it is for flight. This also makes it easier for you to choose depending on how good you are as a flyer.
Have you ever heard/read the acronym "RTF"? How about "BNF"? Moreover, finally, "ARF"?
RTF (Ready to Fly)
RTF stands for Ready-to-Fly. It means that the drone can be ready to fly in a matter of minutes (there’s no pre-assembly required).
When we say ready to fly, we don’t mean that the drone is going to come flying out the box. That won’t happen.
Instead, it means you’ll able to fly it more or less after removing it from the box. More times than not, the only thing you’ll need to do is insert the battery.
Other times, you might need to charge up the battery. Besides that, there isn’t too much else that you’ll need to do to get into the air.
This type of UAVs is excellent for beginner flyers. That's because they require no complicated setup or programming.
Just keep in mind that they can be more expensive than the other types we’re going to talk about in this article.
Here’s an example of an RTF drone. Now that we've got that out of the way let's talk about the next kind: BNF.
BNF stands for Bind-N-Fly. This means that the drone doesn’t come with a transmitter (the Blade 200 QX is a perfect example).
So if you already have a transmitter at home, then this can save you much money by not having to buy one. This is why BNF drones tend to be cheaper than what you might expect.
These drone types are better-suited for experienced flyers who may have already invested in a quality transmitter.
While it’s not guaranteed, you might be able to use transmitters from old quadcopters to fly your new BNF model. So in theory, you’d be able to use the same transmitter forever, but there’s no way to know for sure until you try it.
Since a beginner flyer probably won’t have a transmitter at home, it wouldn’t make much sense for them to buy a BNF model.
These models are better for people who have already flown before. Now let’s talk about the final type of quadcopter that you’ll encounter: the ARF.
ARF (Almost Ready to Fly)
ARF stands for Almost Ready to Fly. As you can probably guess, it means that this quadcopter comes almost ready to fly.
Typically, there will be something you’ll need to do first before getting into the air. It's hard to say what that "something" is considering that the word "almost" can be entirely subjective.
One example of an ARF drone is one that comes with some parts missing. The parts missing can be the motors, body, or any number of things.
The point is, these drone types aren't designed for beginners. They are better suited for people who understand how quadcopters work and how to build them.
If you want to experience the thrill of learning how to put together your machine, then the ARF model is the way to go. You will also opt for an ARF drone if you're an existing flyer who wants more customization.
Picture it like a go-kart racer: beginners typically buy stock go-karts while more experienced riders build them from scratch. The drone community isn’t any different.
2. Based Technology Type
UAVs are continuously being developed along with the evolving technology. Regardless, of new developments, the main aspects of propulsion, autonomy, and size are still vital even in the future UAVs.
Those are the primary considerations in the different types of drones shown in this category.
Fixed Wing Drones are more like airplanes. They also look like such, particularly distinguishable by one rigid wing. Because of this rigid wing, they cannot do vertical lifts. Instead, they glide to high altitudes.
Not only can they reach higher heights but they can also stay in the air for hours. Some even last up to 16 hours. The gas-powered engines can fly for even more extended hours.
However, flying fixed wings may be quite a little tricky. It would require a little training first.As such, these are not the usual choice for a hobby. Instead, this kind of UAV is an option for the military when a manned flight is too risky.
Fixed wing drones are also used for aerial mapping, inspection, agriculture, construction, security, and surveillance.
Single rotor UAVs are much like helicopters in structure and design. They have one main rotor for vertical lift and a smaller rotor at the tail for direction and stability.
The large rotor which serves more like a rotating wing enables the UAV to generate thrust more efficiently. This also helps single rotor UAVs to carry a heavier payload. Even more, they are built with strength and durability.
This type of drones also has long flight times. There are also gasoline-powered engines that have even longer flight times.
Flying a single rotor may be quite easier as compared to the fixed wing UAVs. However, they are still not very stable in the air. You would still need some excellent skills to keep the UAV in the air.
There's no need to be a master flyer to fly single rotor UAVs. You can learn and have the flight skills as you go. Have to be extra careful at first especially if you are a beginner.
Because their structure is more complicated, they also require more mechanical maintenance. You would also need to exert extra care to prevent injury that may be caused by the large spinning rotor.
Fixed Wing Hybrids
This particular type is quite a new one and not as popular as the other types. These UAVs have fixed wings yet they take off and land vertically like single rotors.
Some designs that allow this is by placing a vertical lift motor to a fixed wing. There are also others that sit on their tail and point vertically for takeoff. Then once on air, they fly horizontally.
This design was initially intended and tested for manned flights. However, it was found that they are too difficult to fly and the flight test results are practically disastrous.
UAVs, on the other hand, can handle this design through flight computers and advanced sensors. Although there are still very few fixed wing hybrids in the market at present, their designs are very promising.
Multirotors are the most popular UAVs among hobbyists and professionals. They have varied uses - aerial photography, filmmaking, surveillance, racing, agriculture, construction, etc.
Since they have several rotors, most multirotor UAVs are easy to control and maneuver. They can take off and land vertically, and even have the ability to hover. They are also pretty stable because of the several rotors.
On the downside, most multirotors have limited flight time (maximum of 30 minutes) and small payload capability. The most they can carry is a tiny camera perfect for aerial photography. Another factor that makes multirotors the most popular is their affordability.
Most drone components are smaller and cheaper that makes a multirotor easy and inexpensive to manufacture. Most multirotor UAVs also can be connected to mobile phones which make them more affordable.
Multirotor UAVs are further sub-categorized based on the number of their rotors. Some tricopters have three rotors, quadcopters with four rotors — hexacopters with 6 and octocopters with 8. Among these, quadcopters are the most popular.
3. Based on Ability
Different UAVs can perform various tasks. Nonetheless, there are UAVs with specific ability to do a particular job.
Regardless of UAVs’ design, structure or technology, the primary consideration of succeeding drone types is the task they can perform.
These are the type of drones that are best for the newbies. They don’t require setting up or much customization.
RTF Drones mentioned earlier basically belong to this type too. It is already fully assembled once you take it out of the box.
They are quick to use and easy to navigate. They take off and land, and stabilize in the air quickly.
Trick drones are the UAVs for more experienced flyers. They may also sometimes be called toy drones.
They are small, fast and maneuverable. These are the UAVs that can perform exhibitions such as barrel rolls, flips, and other flashy entertaining moves.
To do these things, their components are also small and simple. They do not have accessories that could only weight them down.
UAVs for racing are almost similar to those of Trick Drones. They are small, fast, and free of excess weight.
However, instead of focusing on their maneuverability, they highlighted on the speed. Some models can even fly up to 60-120 miles per hour.
They have the perfect combination of stability, speed, and agility. Their flight should still be manageable even with increased speed.
Often, they also come with FPV (first person view) feature to give a better perspective to the drone flyer.
Because of the specific requirements for racing UAVs, most serious racers opt for customizable models.
These are the UAVs with either an attached or detachable camera to their body. They are designed with the capability to stably hover a particular area to capture great images.
The UAVs in this drone type also compete with how good their camera is. Nowadays, most can already record 4K HD videos at 30-60fps. To do these, they also usually can be connected to mobile phones.
The downside, however, is their limited flight time considering that they have to fight the wind and carry extra weight.
GPS drones are the more advanced type of UAVs. They are not intended for hobbyists, but they sure are advantageous for other purposes (which we will show later on).
GPS drones have three unique navigation features – autonomous flight, position hold and return to home
Through setting up a flight path by establishing the GPS waypoints, the drone can fly on an autopilot mode. Aside from autonomous flight, a GPS drone can also hold or maintain its position at a fixed altitude and location.
The Return to Home feature, lastly, can be utilized upon pressing the button or when it’s low on battery.
With these features, these UAVs are used for surveying building construction, road inspections and maintenance, infrastructure inspections and crop inspections.
Delivery drones have become more popular in theory than they are in actual use. However, they are fastly becoming popular in companies, especially to those who need to move their equipment and products.
They are specifically built to be strong and to handle some weight load. There may still be some limitations with their capability, but researchers are working around the technology to overcome this.
4. Based on Size
The most common types of drones you will see in the market are the small drones and tiny drones. They are the most used by hobbyists and professionals, alike since they are portable.
Unpopular to many, there are bigger UAVs. Some are even as large as a small aircraft.
Very Small / Mini
They are also known as nano or micro drones. They can be as small as an insect to a maximum of 50cm in length.
These UAVs are designed with wings or rotors so small allowing them to maneuver even in tiny and enclosed spaces. They are best for biological warfare and covert operations.
These are bigger than mini-drones but still relatively small. Specifically, their size can go from 51cm to a maximum of 2m. As such, they can always be carried by one hand.
With this size, UAVs usually have fixed wings although there are still some with rotary wings. This is the most popular drone type among hobbyists and experienced flyers.
UAVs that are bigger than small drones (more than 2m) yet smaller than light aircraft fall under this type. With this size, they usually need to be carried by two people.
Often, they serve as delivery drones since they can carry up to 200kg of weight load.
These UAVs can also be mistaken as manned aircraft because they are almost the same size of a small aircraft. These are the most popular in the military and are often used for surveillance purposes.
In particular, when land and water transports are not feasible. Large UAVs are also being sent in high-risk areas that may be too dangerous for manned aircraft.
5. Based on Range
We are now down to the last category – range. This may be one important factor you will want to consider before buying a UAV.
Very Close Range
Beginner and toy drones usually fall under this type. Since they are not high-powered, they can fly only up to 5km.
They also cannot stay in the air for long. An hour of flight time is already considered long for this type of UAVs.
Although they might not seem to offer much, these are most popular for private and commercial use.
You may be surprised, but close range UAVs can fly up to 50km away from its pilot. Their flight time is also longer and may last up to 6 hours.
The military often uses UAVs of this type for surveillance missions.
These UAVs can be flown up to 150km and can stay on flight up to 12 hours. They are also used by the military but for reconnaissance and spy applications.
Mid-range UAVs are the most high-powered type in this category. They can fly at high-speed as far away as 650km.
The military also uses them for more extended surveillance and various data collection purposes.
Types of Drones – Bottom Line
We hope that this article on types of drones has helped clear up any confusion that you may have had. We highly recommend memorizing these acronyms as you’ll be seeing them a lot.
Whenever you shop for a drone online, it will usually tell you whether it’s an RTF, BNF, or ARF. If you’re a beginner, it’s a good idea to start with the RTF models.
They come with everything that you need to get in the air quickly (check out this page for an extensive list of RTF models).
The BNF models are designed for people who have their own transmitters, and finally, the ARF models are for people who want more customization freedom.
If you have any questions about these 3 drone types, leave a comment below. Thanks for reading! Good luck and fly safe.