Drones vs. RC Planes: What are the Differences?


For many people, drones and RC (remote-controlled) planes are both devices that fly in the air and are used for photography, racing, etc. However, there is much more to both drones and remote-controlled planes than this. That being said, what are the differences between the two? 

Drones are small, unmanned aircraft built using sophisticated technology, unlike RC planes which are remotely piloted, small aircraft made from flimsy materials like foam. Both aircraft have a lot of differences in features and are used for different purposes.

For instance, RC planes cannot work without receiving signals from a radio transmitter and are primarily inefficient. In contrast, drones mostly fly independently and serve more purposes because of their efficiency. Read below more features and functions of both drones and RC planes and what makes them different.

Characteristics and Features of Drones

Drones were initially used for military purposes but are now increasingly used in many different recreational ways, as well as for commercial purposes. They are made of lightweight materials to maximize battery life and efficiency, but are usually quite sturdy and can stand up to some bumps. 

Drones are also often equipped with sophisticated technology such as infrared cameras, GPS, sensors, navigation systems, etc. Every day, drone technology continues to evolve to become more accessible and inexpensive. As such, large companies, individuals, SMEs, etc., are using drones to execute various tasks, saving time and money, and improving safety for personnel. 

Not all drones are used for the same functions, and they come in different shapes and sizes. What we typically think of as a consumer drone is also generally a quadcopter, using four rotors to generate lift. Some drones can use more arms and rotors, and some can also operate more like an airplane with a fixed-wing design. 

Kids can operate small-sized drones because of the simple structure. Most drones can also be launched into the air by hand.

The essential parts of drones include the propellers, transmitter and receiver, flight and motor controllers, frame, camera, etc. These parts allow the drone to fly in the air smoothly and perform different acrobatics, depending on the owner’s interests. Despite the fact that drones are now inexpensive and accessible to everyone, they continue to become more and more advanced and sophisticated.

Uses for Drones

There is no end to the possibilities a drone provides. They are used in rescue operations, such as emergency cases when people need to be helped or even found. They are also used to monitor serious or suspicious happenings from the sky and inspect utility systems such as pipelines, wind turbines, power lines, etc. 

In the energy sector, drones are used to inspect energy infrastructure to ensure compliance with standards. It is safer and more efficient for drones to detect leaks than human inspectors. Some companies also use drones to survey areas to identify drill sites.

Aerial drones shoot most fast-paced scenes in action movies nowadays, with helicopter shots being a thing of the past. Journalists also use drones to collect information in live broadcasts and sports events. These functions would have required the use of expensive cranes, which are not accessible to most people. 

In agriculture, drones have become a cheaper and more effective means to monitor crops. The infrared sensors in drones are used to determine crops’ health, thereby enabling the farmer to improve the conditions of their crops. Research shows that drones will soon be in use in 80% of the agricultural sector in the next few years. 

Researchers use drones to track animals with infectious diseases. They use drones to follow these animals to their habitat to get more insight. The intelligence gained from these expeditions is used to protect residents in disease-prone communities and prevent epidemics.

As the health of wildlife is increasingly put at risk by poaching and climate change, conservationists use drones to monitor and track wildlife. Information is gathered about endangered species and transmitted back to researchers. Researchers can research natural habitats without any disturbance with the aid of drones.

Pros and Cons of Drones

Drones are cheap to use and easy to fly. You can get a drone for less than $500. You do not need to get a pilot’s license before you fly a drone for recreational purposes.

Also, flying a drone is fun. It is a pleasant hobby and allows you to meet new people. Flying a drone attracts attention and helps to strike up a conversation with others.

However, a drone has limitations too. It has a short flight time, which is about 12 to 25 minutes depending on the drone. You need to frequently replace the batteries for you to use them for a longer period of time. 

On rainy or windy days, you cannot fly a drone as the battery and electrical components are sensitive to moisture. Water droplets often cause a malfunction in the drone. Besides, the windy weather is no friend of a smooth and stable flight, and can even cause a crash

While drones have helped with lots of human activities, some people fear that they will replace human jobs in the economy. Industries like agriculture, e-commerce, etc. are likely to be affected. For example, e-commerce companies may require fewer human delivery personnel as drones are used to deliver packages. 

They also have the potential to injure people and damage property. Accidents happen when drones crash due to dead batteries, bird attacks, changes in wind direction, the unprofessionalism of some drone pilots, etc. Sometimes, drones crash into piloted aircraft too.

There have been reports of drones injuring people. For this reason, not everyone takes well to seeing a drone fly in their surroundings. Governments in different countries of the world regulate the use of drones to reduce the chances of accidents.

In the wrong hands, drones can be abused. Some people use them for illegal purposes such as getting illicit footage, corporate espionage, flights over taboo zones like prisons, nuclear power plants, etc. These cases of abuse are either due to negligence, ignorance, or often malicious intent.

Characteristics and Features of RC Planes 

RC planes are radio-controlled aircraft built from less sophisticated materials. You can even easily make one in the comfort of your home. They are best for people just learning how to fly. RC planes are easily identified by their airplane-like shape, and do not have four rotors like most drones. 

The essential parts of an RC plane include nuts and bolts, electronic speed controller, electric propeller, battery, battery charger, foam board, radio transmitters, and receiver, control horns, etc. However, RC planes tend to be flimsy in structure and design. As such, they are also generally unstable in the air.

RC planes are used almost exclusively for entertainment purposes. You will rarely find someone who uses it for practical and commercial purposes such as videography, photography, etc. However, some RC planes are more advanced in reporting navigational data. 

Pros and Cons of RC Planes

The advantages of RC planes are not many. They are mainly used for recreational purposes and by beginners in aero flying. One huge benefit is that they can foster creativity and practical skills when constructed within the comfort of your home.

RC planes are also much cheaper than drones. They can be used in weather-reading experiments in government, scientific and military organizations. Their flimsy construction means they can be used essentially as disposable aircraft for experiments or to gather data. Since they are small-sized versions of bigger aircraft, they are often used in wind tunnels to test aerodynamics.

On the other hand, there are many disadvantages of RC planes. They cannot be programmed to fly autonomously. They are also harder to maneuver as they do not have return-to-home and auto-landing features. 

Due to their flimsy structure, they are not versatile in the air. RC planes are less maneuverable and cannot fly at very high altitudes. They cannot carry a payload either.

RC planes have a lot of limitations. They are best suited to flight enthusiasts who do not want to perform any task with small aircraft, and simply want to enjoy controlling a remote flight.

Differences Between Drones and RC Planes 

Although drones and RC planes are both aircraft, they have a wide range of differences. They are not used for the same functions, as their capabilities are not the same. Here are the major differences between drones and RC planes:

DroneRC Plane
Can be unpiloted or remotely controlledAlways remote-controlled
Built using sophisticated technologyBuilt using flimsy and insubstantial materials such as cardboard, foam, etc
Chances of getting into accidents are minimal.Higher chance of getting into accidents.
Smooth flight due to its sturdy nature and sophisticated flight featuresShaky, unpredictable flight due to its lightweight nature and lack of features
Used for more specialized operations like emergency servicesUsed for recreational purposes
Used commercially because of its efficiency in performing tasksNot used commercially because of its inefficiency
Limited by battery lifeDifficulty flying at high speed.
Though more complex, it is easier to controlLess steady and maneuverable
Has four rotors, which allow it to be highly maneuverableHas fixed wings and one rotor; in some cases, two

Choosing between a drone and an RC plane depends on a lot of factors. For example, some tasks are better executed using a drone than an RC plane, especially in remote areas that are difficult to fly. Drones also give higher-resolution images, except if you are not particular about the resolution of your surveys. 

However, some tasks require RC planes, especially when they are requested. Ultimately, your choice between these aircraft depends on what your goals and expectations are for the aircraft.

Elizabeth Ciobanu

Editor-in-Chief. Elizabeth is a full-time (homeschooling!) mom of four, and serial entrepreneur in a variety of enterprises, one of which is producing content for Droneblog. If free time existed, she would love to spend more time on hobbies such as flying a drone.

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