Drones are growing in popularity at a rapid pace and the number of industries that are adopting drones is growing just as quickly. This growth has led to many companies trying to get the attention of consumers by coming up with new ideas like fixed-wing drones with VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing).
Quadcopters are still significantly more common than fixed-wing drones. However, the demand for fixed-wing drones is growing and the benefits of fixed-wing drones for certain scenarios are becoming more evident.
Drone technology has come a very long way in a short time and fixed-wing drones are going to become more common, especially with VTOL fixed-wing UAVs becoming more accessible to everyone.
While a fixed-wing drone might not seem as agile or useful as a quadcopter, there are some tasks that can be completed faster and easier with a fixed-wing over a quadcopter, such as long-range mapping or inspections.
What is a fixed-wing drone?
Fixed-wing drones are not a new technology. In fact, they have been around significantly longer than the more common quadcopter. Fixed-wing drones are basically RC planes with different camera and payload capabilities.
They come in many different shapes and configurations. Fixed-wing drones are most commonly used for large area mapping missions or long-range missions due to their longer flight durations.
Most fixed-wing drones look like a V-shaped wing or an airplane, but some have more than two wingtips, like the tri-wing designs. There are also other fixed-wing designs that can allow for different payloads to be mounted for many different use cases.
Fixed-wing drones may not be as common as quadcopters, but they can perform a lot of the same tasks and sometimes do them more efficiently.
Quadcopter vs fixed-wing
A lot of times when people think of drones, they think of either a military drone or a quadcopter, but not usually a small fixed-wing drone. Quadcopters are extremely agile and versatile, beginner-friendly, and cheap which are some of the reasons that make them the most common choice when it comes to drones.
Fixed-wing drones are not quite as versatile as a quadcopter regarding the different services they can provide. That said, fixed-wing drones are still versatile tools and the tasks they can do, they do extremely well and sometimes more efficiently than their quadcopter counter-part.
Below is a table highlighting some of the areas where each type of UAV excels:
|Real Estate Photography||✓|
|Inspections (over large areas)||✓|
|Larger Payload Capacity||✓ (Depends on aircraft)|
Size Does Matter
It seems that most drone manufacturers are making foldable drones these days to keep the storage size of the drone more reasonable for the average consumer.
While most fixed-wing drones have a larger assembled size than quadcopters, the majority that I have found can be broken down and stored in a smaller case. This is helpful as it cuts down on the area needed to store the drone.
Some fixed-wing drones even have 5–6-foot wingspans, so having the ability to break it down to a smaller size is pretty necessary.
How to fly a fixed-wing drone
Flying a drone can be a scary thing for a lot of beginners, myself included. You just bought this expensive piece of equipment and now you have to fly it around and not crash into things while performing an unfamiliar task.
Sounds tough, and the consequences of a crash can be expensive, not to mention the toll a crash can take on the psyche of the pilot. I know that when I crashed my expensive IR equipped drone, it took me a while to gain my confidence back and feel comfortable flying again.
Luckily I’m back to feeling confident in my flying abilities now, but it took a couple of months of nervously flying to get back here.
Learn about your drone before flying it
First of all, learn as much as possible about the drone and what you are intending to do with it before the drone is even purchased. This can make you feel more confident in the purchase, which in turn can translate into more confidence while flying since you already “know what to expect”.
Also, read the owner’s manual that comes with the drone, and be sure that you understand all the controls and safeguards that the drone has.
It is also very important to go through the pre-flight checks as described in the owner’s manual before the drone is airborne. This quick simple check of the aircraft can mean the difference between a successful flight and a crash, and again, a crash can be expensive.
This little bit of time spent learning about the drone before flying it will save even more time and stress in the future.
Use beginner or training modes when first learning
Most drones nowadays come with a built-in training or learning mode. This limits the drone’s speed, distance, and altitude which is helpful for first-timers who might be a little nervous about putting their investment 400 feet in the air.
Fixed-wing drones are no different and can be just as beginner-friendly as a quadcopter.
For example, the “Assisted Mode” that is included with the Parrot Disco is specifically designed for first-time pilots. It helps prevent the drone from stalling if the pilot makes an error with the control sticks.
This will help the new pilot to gain confidence and it will make flying more fun. It will make the pilot want to fly more and in doing so, will gain skills much sooner than someone who is not confident and out flying all the time.
Learn how to launch your drone (VTOL vs other launching methods)
The first step to successfully flying a drone of any kind is to get it into the air. There are many different methods to launch a fixed-wing drone and some of them can even launch themselves.
Hand-launching is the most popular way manufacturers have decided to have the aircraft takeoff, but there are a couple other options that are making it easier to get a fixed-wing drone into the sky.
VTOL, which stands for Vertical Take-Off and Landing, seems to be the best way to get a fixed-wing drone into the air.
The technology has been increasing in recent years and the parts needed for VTOL are becoming cheaper.
This is making it more affordable for manufacturers to incorporate VTOL into their fixed-wing aircraft and this technology is slowly becoming more common and more affordable.
Some types of fixed-wing drones need a long stretch of clear land for takeoff and landing. This can sometimes be a difficult thing to find if you’re in a densely populated area or a forest.
Drones with VTOL avoid the need for any sort of runway as they take off and land vertically. This makes it possible for fixed-wing drones to be launched in a wooded area, which has proven to be extremely helpful during wildfires.
VTOL basically incorporates one of the best attributes of quadcopters with the endurance and distance capabilities of fixed-wing aircraft. This creates an extremely capable drone that can perform almost any task that a quadcopter can.
I expect to see most fixed-wing drone manufacturers start incorporating VTOL into their products in the near future.
If the fixed-wing drone is not equipped with VTOL, then it is usually launched by hand or with a mechanical launcher.
Hand launching seems to be the most popular way to get a fixed-wing drone into the air. Hand launching is done by throwing the drone like a giant paper airplane. The wings on the drone will catch the air and the propeller will start to spin to propel the drone forward.
After the drone is airborne, the operator can quickly take control of the remote and start flying the mission.
Some larger fixed-wing drones use a mechanical means to get the drone airborne. The pilot will load the drone into the catapult-style launcher and hit the button. The drone launches forward at a slight upward angle and takes off into the sky.
The pilot will be able to quickly take control of the drone and get the mission started.
What happens after launch?
Most professional fixed-wing drones have some sort of pre-programmed flight pattern that is automatically started after it is launched.
For example, the Parrot Disco will start flying in a circle overhead once it is launched. It will continue to fly the circle by itself until the pilot takes control.
The altitude and size of the circle can be pre-set into the drone to keep it close by, or let it go a little further until the pilot is ready to take over.
How to land a fixed-wing drone
A lot of the fixed-wing drones that are available land on their “belly” since they are not equipped with any rolling landing gear. There is usually some sort of protective slider on the bottom of the drone to prevent the hull from being damaged during its landings.
During the pre-flight checks of the flight area, the pilot will need to ensure they have a clear space that is long enough for the drone to land and slide to a stop.
Drones equipped with VTOL capabilities require a much smaller landing area than a fixed-wing without VTOL capabilities since they take off and land vertically like a quadcopter-style drone.
This is a pretty big advantage over “normal” fixed-wing drones and makes VTOL-equipped drones able to take off and land in congested areas, giving them even more versatility.
Fixed-wing drone options
There are quite a few different shapes and sizes of fixed-wing drones.
Some are V-shaped wings made out of high-density Styrofoam with cameras, sensors, circuits, and batteries built into them.
These types usually have one motor mounted in the center on the rear of the drone to propel it forward. They usually have alerions built into the rear edge of the wings to control the aircraft, but otherwise, they do not have many moving parts.
Sometimes these wing-shaped drones include VTOL, but most of the time they are hand-launched and land on their bellies. This lack of “moving parts” cuts down on maintenance required for these types of drones, which makes owning and operating one easier.
RC plane style
As I was doing research for this blog post I came across a few different fixed-wing drones that I thought looked like old-school RC planes. The Autel Dragonfish, for example, is a VTOL fixed-wing drone, but when it is flying around it looks like a plane more than a drone.
It is shaped like a plane except for the large propellers on the top of it, and the tilting wing-tips that allow for VTOL capabilities. It is considered a fixed-wing drone, but could easily be mistaken for an RC plane.
In my research, I also came across a few fixed-wing drones that made me smile because of the somewhat ridiculous shapes they had. Some look like X-Wing fighters from Star Wars, some look like jets, and one that I found has 3 wings, a tri-tip drone.
As more needs arise for drones, more “ridiculous” designs will come out to fill different niches in the industry.
BVLOS and fixed-wing drones
The drone industry is slowly moving towards making BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) missions more common.
I believe that BVLOS is where fixed-wing drones will really excel, due to their long endurance and greater flight efficiency. A fixed-wing drone creates much less resistance and drag while flying, making it much more efficient for long distances than a typical quadcopter.
When a fixed-wing drone is equipped with VTOL, the possibilities for long-distance drone delivery seem much more reachable in the near future.
Drones are extremely useful tools and a fixed-wing drone is just another specialty tool for your tool belt that will help perform specific job tasks better than the rest of your “tools”.
I recommend trying out a few different drones and performing different drone services, to figure out what type of work you like to do best.
Investing in quality equipment will almost always pay off, so be sure to do research to make sure the job you’re trying to accomplish can be completed by the drone you’re looking to buy.
You might be surprised to find that the job you want to do can be done with a fixed-wing drone, so don’t rule them out.