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Fixed-Wing or Multi-Rotor Drones (Which Should You Choose?)

It’s a bird! It’s a plane. No, it’s a UAV. When we’re talking about what we see in the skies, UAV refers to “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.”

Fixed-Wing or Multi-Rotor
Image credit: Depositphotos, Dan Bayne

In this category, we have two core classes: multi-rotor, which refers to drones as we know them (including FPV), and fixed-wing, which refers to those RC model airplanes that may or may not have an FPV setup installed.

For the sake of simplicity, we’re leaving helis out of this comparison (it uses a single rotor to provide thrust to fly).

So, if you’re new to UAVs and flying stuff in the skies, you came to the right place. We’ll explore what there is to know about both drones (multi-rotors) and RC planes (fixed-wings), and which one may be the best for you.

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What are multi-rotor drones?

Multi-rotors are the most common type of drone as we know them, with four arms (at least), motors above each arm, and propellers that can produce enough lift to fly.

They are controlled with a radio controller, which, on many standard consumer drones, can also receive the live image the drone sees.

This type of drone is used regularly for photography, filming, and even flying for fun. They come in many shapes and configurations, and companies are “at war,” competing to bring us ever better and more affordable drones.

GPS drones vs FPVs

Under the category of “drones” or Multi-Rotor, we can divide it up further into standard GPS drones and FPVs. 

The main difference is that standard GPS drones are easy to fly, are mostly automated, can hover and perform different intelligent functions depending on the model, and come with many safety features.

It is best used for photography, filming, and commercial applications.

On the other side, FPV drones are the “pure manual” type of drones with no safety features or intelligent functions, and to control them, you need training and precision. They are fast and could be potentially dangerous in the hands of a beginner. 

With FPV drones, you have an immersive adventure of experiencing the drone’s flight via a pair of FPV goggles, where you see what the drone sees.

It is best used for freestyle, racing, and capturing long-range cinematic content.

These standard GPS and FPV drones are part of Multi-Rotor, which ultimately classifies them as “UAVs.” 

Once a UAV has two or more motors used to fly it, they are multi-rotors (unless you’re talking about a fixed-wing with two or more motors). 

» MORE: What Are GPS Drones, and Why Does It Matter

What are fixed-wing RC planes?

Taking a step further from everything we know about drones, we have fixed-wing RC planes, which are (in this case) small model aircraft with wings that are fixed and do not move or rotate.

They are controlled with a radio transmitter and may or may not have an FPV camera on board for the pilot to experience the same immersive experience as with FPV drones via goggles.

But their shape and size are totally different from that of drones. They are basically like airplanes with large wingspans (but not as big though).

Larger in size and very lightweight, the fixed wing will depend on its aerodynamics to fly, where usually a single motor with propellers either pushes or pulls the fixed-wing (depending on where it is mounted – in front, on the wings for dual motors, or in the back), and possible flaps or airbrakes are used for better control of the aircraft.

» MORE: Beginners Guide to Fixed-Wing Drones

Drones vs. RC Model Planes for Beginners

There’s an entire community built around fixed-wing aircraft, and people gather to fly these RC planes as a hobby, just as some others fly FPV drones for the pure enjoyment of it.

Same as with standard GPS drones.

These are different niches that may attract various new pilots. 

So we cannot say to choose one or the other. It’s like asking someone to choose between a fast car and a fast boat. Which attracts you more?

But I hope we can give you the information you need to make that decision for yourself.

Here at Droneblog, we are experienced pilots and experts in flying drones, meaning standard GPS drones and, in some cases, FPVs. Our knowledge of fixed-wing aircraft is more limited, but some of us have had our fair share of flying them.

For now, let’s get a bit deeper and see which ones perform better over the others under specific categories.

» MORE: How to Fly a Drone: Ultimate Beginner Guide (with Drawings)

Overall Popularity

Winner: Multi-Rotor

In the world of UAVs, there’s no doubt that drones have won their place as the most popular type of multi-rotors and are widely known worldwide, where they have become trendy in the past ten years.

Nowadays, leading companies like DJI and Autel are investing huge amounts of money in developing and improving drone technology with many applications in numerous industries.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a massive leading company that produces fixed-wing and is widely known as the DJI or Autel counterpart. 

To be fair, my personal knowledge about fixed-wing aircraft is limited compared to drones, but still, in terms of popularity, the multi-rotor is without doubt the winner.

If you’re looking for some fixed-wing (FPV) planes, you’ll have to do some research or maybe even consider building one from scratch.

With drones, it is much simpler. Droneblog is built around providing valuable information for beginners about drones with tips and tutorials and to help anyone who wants to acquire a drone decide which is the best for their use.

» MORE: DJI Mini 2 Features – Reasons Why It Is So Popular

Performance & Design

Winner: Multi-Rotor

Drones are intelligent and can contain many smart functions, depending on the model. Their design is simple. Most commonly, you’ll see drones with four arms and four motors connected to a frame or case where all the electronics are hosted.

In terms of performance, from standard drones to FPVs, they can fly fast, hover, and capture photographs, again, depending on the model.

If you’re looking to have fixed-wing RC planes, those are more difficult to transport, maneuver, fly, and land.

In some cases, you’ll have to hand-take off by throwing the RC plane in the air after arming it, but this can also be quite dangerous for beginners and may not always go according to plan. Landing some RC planes also involves a minor crash, hopefully on soft grass.

They are large in size with a wingspan that can easily be more than one meter. For instance, the RKSTD RC Airplane has a wingspan of 1400mm, which is 1.4 meters (4.6ft). That’s nearly the size of a person.

Luckily, many fixed-wing planes have their wings removable for transport, but this will require a bit of setup before flight. Even with this, it is much more difficult to transport fixed-wing than multi-rotor aircraft, and you certainly can’t transport them in a backpack or hard rigid case.

And their performance is severely impacted by the weather.

For instance, drones are able to fly even in windy conditions, remain stable, and fly as expected with few risks involved, while fixed-wing RC planes are harshly impacted even by minor wind gusts. This is due to their aerodynamics, size, and light weight.

» MORE: Best Drones With the Largest Camera Sensors

Battery Life & Flight Range

Winner: Fixed-Wing

Drones require a lot of thrust from their motors to give them lift, and they usually weigh between 250 grams and 1kg, but this can vary.

Large, modern batteries (proportional to the drone) are used to keep them in the air for an average of 30 minutes, but some drones can fly for 40 minutes or more.

FPV drones usually fly, on average, for less than 10 minutes.

Their range depends on the transmission system, such as DJI OcuSync 3.0 or the newest one, 4.0 – which is proprietary to DJI.

» MORE: DJI Transmission System (Everything You Need to Know)

While many DJI drones are advertised to fly more than 6 miles, and some of them even 12+ miles, in reality, we cannot reach this distance because of FCC restrictions and battery life.

On the other hand, with a fixed wing, it is another story.

Some fixed-wing RC airplanes are able to fly for 90 minutes or more. That’s because of the plane’s aerodynamics, where it needs just a little motor to exercise thrust and for the air currents to go under the wings and flaps to maintain altitude and change directions.

Despite their large size, they are very lightweight. Most fixed-wing RC planes are usually built from some lightweight type of foam, especially the wings. 

Because of how they fly, they can carry a little bit of weight, including a large battery to keep the RC plane in the air for a long time, a transmission system, a flight controller, VTX, and other stuff to make it work and for better control. You can even attach action cameras to many fixed-wing RC planes.

Now, they fly a really long time, but their speed is below standard drones and much below FPV drones that can reach over a hundred miles an hour.

Their flight range depends on the radio and video transmission protocol. 

But here’s the beautiful thing. You can customize this as you like. For instance, adding an ELRS radio protocol to it may guarantee a transmission signal for even up to 25 miles (40 km), depending on the frequency, power, and interference.

The same goes for some video transmission systems. 

I have seen people flying fixed-wing FPV planes up to 50 miles (80km).

MyFlyDream (MFD) has tested a fixed-wing drone (Crosswind plane) with a wingspan of less than 2 meters, showing it to be capable of flying as far as 124 miles (200km).

That’s a lot more than the maximum flight capability of standard GPS or FPV drones or any multi-rotor drones, for that matter.

So, no doubt, fixed-wing RC planes fly much longer and farther than normal drones.

Price & Affordability

Winner: It depends

This can become slightly confusing when we have a budget for acquiring some standard multi-rotor drones, FPVs, or fixed-wing RC planes. But it doesn’t have to be.

Usually, cheaper drones and even fixed-wing planes don’t fly well or have good cameras, and we don’t recommend investing in any cheap ones. As for fixed-wing RC planes, only a handful are equipped with a camera or video transmission system from the factory.

That’s why DIY-ing is a big part of owning fixed-wings.

Anyway, for the price standard drones start (usually $300 and up for decent drones – excluding toy drones and really cheap ones), you can also find proper fixed-wing RC planes.

But to match similar or have even better experience with fixed-wing planes, you have to have an FPV system mounted. 

A VTX module with the camera is not expensive (unless you go digital with DJI), and some manufacturers offer the option to buy fixed-wing with different VTX and cameras as well as different TX modules such as ELRS or Crossfire.

The prices do not soar.

But it goes up when you acquire FPV goggles for your RC plane (one-time purchase), especially if you go digital for the best visual experiences.

To fly ELRS or CF planes, you will also need an FPV radio transmitter matching those protocols.

It’s the same as purchasing a first-time FPV kit; prices can get really high at some point, so it’s not about only getting the fixed-wing and remote controller.

But further down the line, if you’re looking to invest in more fixed-wing RC planes with FPV systems mounted, you already have the goggles and controller, and they’ll be cross-compatible (if you go with the same transmission protocols) with your new UAV.

Ultimately, standard GPS drones are much cheaper for first-time buyers than fixed-wing RC planes with an FPV system installed.

However, if you don’t want to opt for any mounted camera and to see a live view, then fixed-wing are indeed cheaper than most multi-rotor drones.

» MORE: FPV Drones vs. Regular Drones (Explained for Beginners)

Building a drone vs fixed-wing

Winner: Fixed-Wing

Let me be a bit realistic here. You can’t really build a standard GPS drone. I mean, it’s possible, but that’ll be extremely challenging for most of us.

What you can build instead is FPV drones from scratch (with the required parts) and as well fixed-wings.

As an FPV drone pilot, let me tell you that building an FPV drone is not an easy task.

It requires a lot of precise soldering skills, mounting, acquiring different parts, ensuring compatibility, and dealing with even the slightest problems like vibrations or having the wrong capacitor. That’s all on top of the massive configurations, setup, and tunning you’ll have to do in Betaflight.

On the other side, if you order an RC plane by parts, building it is not hard. Depending on what setup you’re going for and if you opt for an FPV system, you’ll still have to deal with soldering, balancing components on the frame for better stability, wiring, and troubleshooting.

Even with this, fixed-wing model planes are not as demanding as FPV drones in achieving perfection. For instance, if the fixed-wing propellers are slightly bent, it will still fly, even if it doesn’t fly entirely well.

But if one multi-rotor drone propeller is slightly bent, even by a millimeter, it can cause serious issues and the risk of crashing the drone.

Crashing a drone may cause some grave concerns, and fixing it is not an easy task, although it’s more manageable for FPV drones.

But there’ll be a lot of work behind it, whereas the worst that can happen if you crash a fixed-wing would be to break the frame or wings, which sometimes you can fix even with some duct tape (funny, but I’m serious).

Usually, the internal components are not much affected during a crash.

» MORE: Buying a Drone vs. Building It: Which Is Best?

Safety features

Winner: Multi-Rotor

Because of drones’ intelligent functions, many safety features have been developed over the years, and millions of dollars have been invested in research to make drones fly as safely as possible.

For instance, standard drones can have safety features as such:

But we won’t find any of those behind a fixed-wing RC plane. The only thing we can find in more advanced RC planes is a GPS module that may work to bring the plane automatically to the takeoff point in case you lose the radio link with it.

Even with this, these GPS modules are way behind the high-tech GPS modules DJI has developed over the years that are found in their drones.

» MORE: Drone Safety Features (All You Need to Know)

Commercial Applications

Winner: Multi-Rotor

With fixed-wing, there are limited commercial applications these RC planes can have. Have you seen the above video? That represents one application these fixed-wing airplanes can have: to transport or deliver stuff over long distances.

They can also be used for large mapping missions.

They are able to carry a small payload, and they’re better at long-range flights. But even with this, these fixed-wing drones have to be very advanced and quite large to be able to use them in this way.

On the other hand, drones have found their way into so many industries that we can’t keep track of them all.

From logistics, real-estate photography, inspections, mapping, search & rescue, and many more, drones have significant benefits that have changed how these industries can function.

And here I’m strictly talking about consumer-type drones and excluding agricultural and delivery drones.

» MORE: Commercial Drone Pilots in USA (Ultimate Guide)

Laws & Regulations

Winner: None

In the United States, the FAA controls the airspace laws in relation to UAVs. Basically, they create, change, and adapt drone laws. The same goes for Europe with EASA, the UK with CAA, and so on.

Airspace is regulated by the country you want to fly drones or fixed-wing RC planes. And as far as we are aware, there’s no difference in drone laws between fixed-wing or multi-rotor drones.

They are all applicable to “UAVs” – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – with both fixed-wing RC planes and multi-rotor drones falling under this category.

» MORE: Where Can I Fly My Drone (United States)?

What to Choose

If I would personally have to choose again, I would like to give it a try to fixed-wing RC planes with FPV system mounted. But that’s just me, personally, as I love a change in scenery.

However, for a very new beginner in flying stuff, multi-rotor drones can have more purposes, require less maintenance and space to fly, are safer and more intelligent, and they’re a great way to start drone photography or filmmaking.

As a hobby, I would not at all exclude fixed-wing drones, especially if you live in an area with a lot of space to fly them (e.g., mountains).

» MORE: Introducing the New and Improved Google Wing Drone: My Experience Witnessing This Drone Up Close and Personal