One of a drone’s most distinguishing features is its intelligent suite of functions.
From follow-me to waypoints and auto-takeoffs and landings, drones continuously get smarter as manufacturers compete in the most innovative ways. We drone pilots win for their advancements.
How do smart features in drones work?
A drone’s smart features typically perform autonomously or using sensors. For example, ActiveTrack in DJI drones uses camera sensors to find and track an object or person, setting the camera angle and drone trajectory according to that object/person’s path.
You’ve come to the right place if you’re eager to learn more about drone smart features and what may be on the horizon.
I’ll explain the most popular intelligent functions in detail so you understand what they do, how they work, and how to use ‘em.
To help, we’ve identified and reviewed the best drone courses for beginners and professionals.
Are drones intelligent?
Asking if drones are intelligent is like pondering if the sky is blue. The answer is unequivocally yes.
It’s only been since 2016 that the FAA changed its restrictions, opening up America to commercial and recreational drone use on a massive scale.
In the fewer than 10 years that have elapsed since then, drone technology has advanced to a truly incredible degree.
Intelligent features evolve all the time as industry leaders like Autel and DJI one-up each other in the quest to create the perfect consumer drone.
Today’s drones are equipped with high-end sensors and camera technology that can gauge the area around the drone, lock onto subjects with pinpoint accuracy, and sense obstacles so the drone doesn’t crash.
Active Track and Dynamic Track in drones
So, let’s dive right into the incredible smart features today’s drones offer, beginning with two popular picks, Active Track and Dynamic Track.
Active Track 101
Active Track–stylized as ActiveTrack for DJI drones–is one of two tracking modes that come standard with many consumer drones.
Let’s look at DJI’s ActiveTrack as an example of how this incredible technology works. ActiveTrack utilizes the remote controller or smartphone screen to gauge persons or objects nearby.
The objects can include almost anything, including moving vehicles.
ActiveTrack marks the subject according to your choosing, following them accurately. This feature is handy for taking photos or videos of a single subject, such as for documentary-style footage.
While using DJI ActiveTrack, you can adjust the altitude.
So, what’s the technology behind this? That depends on the drone in question. Some drones use GPS for Active Track.
Newer DJI models with ActiveTrack have artificial intelligence and algorithms to enhance the computer’s vision and help it see more clearly.
Even then, ActiveTrack isn’t a perfect feature. If you blend in well with your scenery, such as wearing black clothing in a dark environment, this intelligent function won’t track as accurately.
It also doesn’t like camo for the same reason.
DJI’s ActiveTrack utilizes a drone’s safety features like sensing and vision systems to gauge obstacles and fly safely while still maintaining the trajectory of the person or object.
- How to Active Track with Mavic 3 (Step-by-Step Guide)
- Can You Fly a DJI Drone Without GPS? (Explained for Beginners)
What is Dynamic Track?
Let’s switch gears and discuss Dynamic Track, a feature commonly found in Autel drones such as the Nano+.
Dynamic Track works similarly to Active Track (or ActiveTrack).
It’s used for autonomously tracking subjects or objects, meeting their speed. Dynamic Track utilizes AI power to generate smart paths as the drone flies so it can always track the subject.
Thanks to its dual-core object detection technology, Autel’s Dynamic Track 2.0 can detect 64 subjects simultaneously, whether animals, vehicles, or people.
That just goes to show how truly amazing drone technology is.
In the case of Dynamic Track 2.0, you can use features like Gesture Control, Orbit Mode, Viewpoint Mode, and Parallel Track Mode within Dynamic Track.
Gesture Control takes photos and videos hands-free, Orbit Mode circles clockwise or counter-clockwise around a selected subject, Viewpoint Mode focuses on one target (with adjustable height parameters), and Parallel Track Mode flies parallel to a subject.
QuickShots features – What are they?
QuickShots is a DJI-exclusive smart feature in Spark, Mini, and Mavic drones.
This autonomous feature lets you shoot photos and videos according to the drone’s prescribed movements, which are the same no matter how many times you repeat the function.
Once you take a video in QuickShots, you can use your drone app, smartphone, or remote controller to edit the video and send it to social media.
Here are the QuickShots features in more detail.
When you select Asteroid, the drone will first fly backwards, then up. After shooting images, it goes back to its starting point.
Asteroid is useful for panoramas where you ascend to the top of a summit and then drop down. However, you can’t set the distance or flight direction for this feature.
DJI recommends 50 meters or 164 feet of space above your drone and 40 meters or 132 feet behind it for best results.
Asteroid is a QuickShots feature in the Mini 3 Pro, Mavic 3, Air 2S, Mavic Air 2, and Air 3.
In Boomerang, the drone will take an oval trajectory around a subject, then fly from the subject upward and descend back toward the subject.
The oval has an axis determining the drone’s starting and ending points.
DJI suggests having a radius of 10 meters or 33 feet above the drone and 30 meters or 99 feet around it.
You can configure the flight direction, making it all the more important to maintain the prescribed distances.
You can use Boomerang in the Mini 3 Pro, Mavic 3, Air 2S, Mavic Air 2, Mini 2, and Air 3.
» MORE: Best and Easiest Drones to Fly
As you could have guessed from the name, Helix is a QuickShots feature where the drone will spin around a subject.
The drone first ascends, then descends. You can configure the flight direction and flight distance, but the latter is only adjustable with some drones.
Helix is a QuickShots feature in many DJI drones, including the Mini 3 Pro, Air 3, Mini 4 Pro, Mavic 3, Air 2S, Mavic Air, Mavic Mini, and Mini SE.
With a name like Circle, this QuickShots feature allows the drone to spiral around a subject of your choosing.
You can set the flight direction but cannot adjust the distance.
Circle is available as a QuickShots function in the Mini 3 Pro, Air 2S, Mavic Air 2, Mavic 3, Air 3, and all Mini drones.
Take off with the Rocket feature. Your drone will ascend to a prescribed height, keeping the camera pointing down to capture incredible footage hundreds of feet up.
Better yet, you can adjust the flight distance on some DJI drones.
You can use Rocket in the Mini 3 Pro, Air 3, Mini 4 Pro, Mavic 3, Air 2S, Mavic Air 2, Mini 2, Mavic Mini, and Mini SE.
The last QuickShots mode is Dronie. When you select this option, the drone will first fly backwards, then upward.
The camera will focus on one subject, capturing video during its trajectory. You can sometimes set the flight distance, but it depends on the drone.
This function is compatible with the Mini 3 Pro, Air 3, Mini 4 Pro, Mavic 3, Air 2S, Air 2, Mini 2, Mavic Mini, and Mini SE.
How anti-collision sensors work
Autonomous features in drones are great and one of the best intelligent functions UAVs have to offer.
However, these features wouldn’t be possible without anti-collision sensors.
More drones on the market have anti-collision sensors to preserve them for longer-term use.
How do these sensors work? With as complex a need as obstacle avoidance, it’s not due to one sensor but a series working in tandem. Here’s what you need to know.
Track and follow object sensors
The drone’s sensors will track objects along its trajectory, discerning between people, animals, vehicles, and other types of objects.
The drone will scan an area, map out potential obstacles, and send this data to the flight controller.
Collision avoidance algorithms within the controller can help the drone hover, stop, and change elevation mid-flight to prevent collisions with obstacles.
Sensor data fusion
Drone collision sensors unite with sensor data fusion.
This methodology combines the data from several sensors to paint a clearer, more accurate picture of which obstacles may abound when the drone is in flight.
You might also hear of this referred to as multi-sensory data fusion.
Obstacle avoidance algorithms
Algorithms built into the obstacle-avoidance sensors allow the drone to detect and avoid objects.
As smart as drone sensors are on their own, they wholly rely on the algorithm to tell them how to work, what to assess, and how to avoid obstacles.
Obstacle avoidance sensors
Let’s talk more about the sensors themselves, as there are different types.
- Ultrasonic sensors determine potential obstacles through high-frequency sound detection. The sensors will gauge how long it takes for the sound to come back to measure obstacle distance.
- Time-of-flight sensors include a light source, interface, and lens to gauge high levels of data and make inferences about obstacles.
- Infrared sensors detect reflected light, generating heat maps about which obstacles may be in the vicinity.
- Stereo vision sensors have a 3D functionality and utilize pixels to produce high-end sensing.
Simultaneous Localization and Mapping
The last feature of anti-collision drone sensors is Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, abbreviated as SLAM. Sensors with SLAM technology will create a map of the area, adjusting the map based on measurements as the drone flies.
How a mechanical gimbal works
Many drones feature a mechanical gimbal, especially top-line models with higher price points.
A gimbal is a stabilization aid. It’s traditionally attached to the camera, enabling pilots to fly and take videos and photos without shakiness, blurriness, and vibrations ruining their footage.
More than only supporting the drone, a gimbal has motion detection capabilities that keep the drone camera at a consistent angle despite how you move the drone.
A mechanical gimbal produces a mechanical force that the gimbal controller reads as an electronic signal.
The micro-electro-mechanical system or MEM, also known as a gyroscope or accelerometer, receives G-forces.
MEM systems will move depending on the G-force, but other mechanical gimbal tech won’t.
Mechanical gimbals operate on an axis. The least sophisticated models have one axis, but most have three.
These control the roll, pitch, and yaw.
The roll is the degree of side tilt, the pitch is the upward or downward tilt, and the yaw moves the gimbal camera left or right without moving the drone.
Four-axis gimbals are a feature in the most expensive drones. This newer technology allows you to adjust the camera 90 degrees to seamlessly alternate between portrait and landscape mode.
How does a drone return and land?
Return-to-home, commonly abbreviated as RTH, is a standard in drones of all price variations.
This straightforward function allows a drone to return to its starting point (the home point) on command if the drone is within range.
You can select its home point, programming it before the flight.
RTH relies on GPS technology to read coordinates and access its home point.
The sophistication of the GPS system varies by drone.
For example, the DJI Mini 3 Pro has a combination of BeiDou, Galileo, and GPS behind its RTH, ensuring its accuracy in returning to the home point.
In most scenarios, pilots choose to use RTH.
However, the function might automatically launch in some instances, such as if the battery is low or the drone loses its connection to the controller.
That makes RTH more than a convenient feature but a safety mechanism.
- DJI Mini 3 Pro Return to Home (Explained for Beginners)
- Does DJI Avata Have Return to Home? (Explained)
How does a drone know its direction?
You’re quite aware of the direction you’re commanding your drone to fly using your smartphone or remote controller, but you’ve always wondered – how does the drone understand its direction?
It has a gyroscope for that.
A gyroscope is a built-in tool with an axis and a wheel. The wheel is mounted to the axis, allowing it to rotate on the axis.
As it spins, it determines how much the drone moves and determines how to improve its balance while staying in the direction the pilot selects.
Can drones be autonomous?
Most certainly, and they already are!
Many features we’ve examined throughout this guide are 100 percent autonomous.
In other words, you command the drone to do something, such as fly in QuickShots mode, and it will do it without your manual input.
Tracking modes and return-to-home are also automatic.
Could we see an entirely automonous drone someday? Possibly, but that would take the fun out of flying, as you wouldn’t have to.
» MORE: Best Autonomous Drones
Drone waypoints – How do they work?
Waypoints are one of a drone’s best smart features and one of the most customized.
You set the waypoints as you like them, drawing them on a map using your finger and a smartphone app or remote controller screen.
The drone will fly according to the waypoints you select, allowing you to create a custom flight path.
You should select a safe, stable route for it to fly to ensure your drone doesn’t incur obstacles unnecessarily.
You can configure your drone waypoints your way, selecting the gimbal pitch, speed, and altitude in addition to the flight path.
Pilots love all the freedom waypoints offer, and you can save your waypoints and repeat the path as much as you want, whether in the same location or elsewhere.
What’s the technology behind waypoints? In the case of DJI’s Waypoints (stylized with a capital W), they use satellite mapping and GPS to produce flight information.
- DJI Mini 3 Pro Waypoints (Explained for Beginners)
- Does Mavic 3 Have Waypoints and How to Use It (Step-by-Step Guide)
- Does DJI Air 2s Have Waypoints? (Explained)
How does a drone remain stable when flying?
Drone stability is critical in ensuring high-quality, usable footage, especially when working on commercial projects.
A drone will stay stable using its gyroscope, which provides directional assistance, GPS signal, and its gimbal.
Drones also have a degree of wind resistance, typically represented by levels, designed to measure their stability in windy conditions.
Operating the drone within those parameters will keep it level, but what if you exceed the wind resistance?
Can drones stabilize in high winds?
Whether a drone can stabilize in high winds depends on its level of wind resistance. The size and weight of the drone are additional contributing factors.
If you like zipping around, a large, heavier drone might not be as fun to fly, but its bulk allows it to withstand winds better.
Smaller drones can find themselves being battered about by a strong breeze, threatening their stability.
Most drones can withstand winds of around 20 to 23 miles per hour. Some DJI drones exceed the norm. For instance, the FPV drone Avata can fly in winds up to 23.6 mph.
The Mavic 3 and Mavic 3 Classic are capable in winds of up to 26.7 mph.
Respecting the wind resistance level of your drone is critical to ensuring a safe flight. Many third-party drone apps on the market today feature wind readings.
You can gauge how powerful the wind will be before even leaving your home or office.
What is the future of drone smart features?
While I wish I had a shiny crystal ball to determine what the future of drones looks like, I don’t. However, it’s fun to theorize, so here are some predictions mixed with a healthy dose of conjecture.
Drones will surely continue to get smarter. That much feels certain.
I predict cameras will become more intuitive, autonomous features will multiply, and a drone’s tracking abilities will continue to strengthen.
With these growing intelligent features, a drone must have improved obstacle avoidance technology and an excellent transmission range to send footage and stream it live.
As has been the case, I’m sure that when new smart features emerge, they’ll appear in higher-end drones by major manufacturers like Autel and DJI first.
Lower-cost, beginner drones will have older features for a few years until the latest wave of smart features becomes common and more affordable.