The ABCs of UAVs
Like many hobbyist toys, drones have a sliding scale of sophistication and cost. The more you spend, the more a drone can do, and the more a drone can do, the harder it is to learn to fly reliably. Drones come in two flavors: fixed-wing aircraft that operate like airplanes, and multicopters that take off vertically and can hover like helicopters. You can build a drone yourself with kit parts from online merchants such as HobbyKing, 3D Robotics, DJI, or Team BlackSheep, or you can do as I did, and pay a little extra to have one of these manufacturers build it for you. There are also several open-source movements designing flight-control and autonomous-flight software for UAVs, including OpenPilot, APM:Copter, and APM:Plane—although not all software works on all hardware.
Large RC planes and helicopters are typically powered by combustion engines and can be difficult and (as the death of an RC hobbiest in Brooklyn, N.Y., this August demonstrates) sometimes dangerous to fly. But a new breed of small and accessible aircraft uses digitally controlled electric motors and high-discharge, rechargeable, lithium-polymer batteries. These are not your average cellphone batteries. Li-Po batteries are powerful and highly volatile, have specialized connectors, must be charged carefully, and have a vocabulary all their own (see “Anatomy of a Battery”). Most importantly, many hobbyist drone aircraft don’t come with a battery—which can throw your weekend plans in the ice bath when you excitedly open the box of your first drone, only to find you’ve got another online order to place before the fun times begin.