What can a drone be used for?
As I'm sure you're aware, up until relatively recently, drones had very negative connotations with destruction within the military. However, rapid developments in this area led to a breakthrough into the public sphere and drones can now also be used for good! There are many applications now and we can, with most things in life, categorise the applications into work and play
Drones for Work
Drones can now offer services that before were unattainable for your average Joe, due to the extravagant cost of hiring a manned aircraft.
1 Mapping and Inspection
In the world of 'work' drones, mapping and inspection is one of the main applications. An example of this is in the field of agriculture. Farmers can now hire or buy a UAV to survey their fields and crops and, with some additional software and sensors, they can accurately access the health of their yield. This data is not only a lot cheaper to collect with a UAV, but it is a lot more accurate as a UAV can fly closer to ground and so the maps it can produce have a much more precise scale.
UAV can also be used in this area to create 3D models of buildings or collections of buildings, which Googles Earth has recently started to do. On top of this, drones can of course just to be used for general inspection of places that are otherwise difficult to access e.g. the underside of bridges.
Fixed-wing or Multirotor?: In mapping large areas, a fixed-wing is more applicable as they can typically fly for longer of periods of time. However, if you're tight for take-off and landing space, a multirotor is ideal as it doesn't need a lot of space. They can only fly for around 20 minutes however, so you have to weigh up the pros and cons of the job in hand.
On the left here is a 3D model of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. This was done with a multirotor and Pix4D software. On the right is a fixed-wing drone being used to map a field.
Modern drones can also be used in the context of surveillance in some circumstances. This is usually applicable in remote places where there the area is sparsely populated and it has to be patrolled by only a few. This involves attaching a camera to the drone and having a live feed down to where the pilot is based, allowing them to see in real time exactly what the camera is seeing.
Fixed-wing or Multirotor?: This is usually a fixed-wing. For these jobs, you need the ability to cover large distances and is the fixed-wing is ideal.
There are also been talk in recent years about the possible usefulness of drones in relation to deliveries. Such companies as Amazon and DHL are considering this alternative in the future but this doesn't look viable at the moment. The battery life of drone currently does not lend itself to this use and there are other practical problems such as the weight of the package being delivered. This is a possibility for the future however, so maybe the world will soon be full of these flying machines above us!
Fixed-wing or Multirotor?: Multirotors are the types of drones that are being looked at here. This is due to their ability to carry much heavy loads than fixed-wings but as mentioned above, the distance that these drones can cover is not enough currently.
4 Aerial Photography
As mentioned in the intro paragraph to this article, aerial photography has exploded due to the introduction of drones. This has, of course, been put to good commercial use and there now exists many hundreds of photography companies offering an aerial photography service with a drone. You can get amazing shots from the highest quality cameras from UAVs that were only once available if you had access to a helicopter. In some ways, drones are even better than manned aircraft as you can get a lot closer to the subjects and scenery, creating unforgettable and unique shots. Of course, aerial photography is not just for work drones and that leads us to the 'play' aspects of drones.
Fixed-wing or Multirotor?: Multirotors are typically used for aerial photography. This is due to their superior agility and maneuverability than the fixed-wing. You can turn in tight circles, you can increase and decrease your altitude rapidly and many other things, which all lends itself to awesome filming.
On the left here, we have the winner of the first Drone Aerial Photography Contest which is 'Flying with Eagle' (as you can see) in Indonesia. On the right, we have an example of a drone setup for aerial photography; this is a self-build multirotor.
Drones for Play
Drones are extremely useful in various fields but we cannot of course forget the fact that they are a great 'toy' to have fun with. Of course, when I say 'toy', you must take all the necessary precautions when flying any drone and they are a highly sophisticated piece of equipment (and also very fun...). So we first have...
1 The Fun of Flying...
This has to get the first mention. Drones don't need a purpose if you don't want, you can just have one for the fun of flying. If you ever have had a remote controlled car or boat or any other sort of vehicle, you will know the joy of just driving that vehicle and this feeling is only enhanced with a drone. There's something about flying that makes it that little bit more special. If you get into this world, there will be times (especially on a sunny day) where you just want to get out with your drone and have a flight. This could be whilst watching the TV, reading a book, or even sat at work....which gets me thinking.... I might just have a quick flight myself so give me a minute.
Fixed-wing or Multirotor?: Either. They offer you different experiences but they are equally as fun!
Speaking of the fun of flying, even flying something like this above (the Cheerson CX-10 mini quadcopter) can be really fun. They're really cheap, fun, and if you want to gain important piloting skills for bigger drones, then this is perfect for practice!
2 Aerial Photography for Fun
Anyway, back to it (sorry about that). Aerial photography certainly deserves a mention under 'fun' as now anybody with some spare cash can get access to some sort of drone with a camera attached and get up in the air taking awesome photos and films. You don't have to have any particular objective when doing this, you can just go to a park of field near you and see your local area from the sky. This seems like an excellent way to spend an hour or so on an afternoon to me (if you take several batteries for your drone).
Fixed-wing or Multirotor?: As mentioned above, multirotor is probably the way to go here. You can capture more dynamic shots.
Here we have two more awesome aerial shots taken by drones, just to show you what they can do. If you want to see more of these amazing shots, visit the CNN website for the rest of the winning photos in the 2015 drone aerial photography contest. In terms of buying a drone for awesome aerial photography (RTF drones anyway), a good way to go is with either a Phantom 3 or a 3DR Solo quadcopter. You find out more about these drones n the page listing.
2 First Person View (FPV)
Now, FPV is a massive area for hobbyists in the world of drones. Briefly, FPV is where you have a system in place on your drone (and on the ground) that allows you to see the live feed of the camera on board your drone on a monitor or even a pair of goggles. This is called First Person View as it simulates to the best of our current abilities, the feeling of actually flying. With an FPV system, you feel as though you are on the drone itself, piloting the aircraft. In fact, you can even get goggles that when you move your head, the camera on-board the drone matches your head movements and it really does feel like you are on-board yourself. Hopefully, you think this is a pretty cool idea and that is why this area is such a hit.
With this application, a sport in this area has bloomed; FPV racing. As you can probably imagine, this is where a group of like-minded enthusiasts for FPV get together and race their drones against one another using the FPV system. This means that they are not looking at their drones themselves, but rather they are just looking at their monitors (or goggles) to navigate the course they're flying on. This may seem foolhardy, but these people have been doing this a long time, and are quite good at controlling their drones whilst they're not actually in sight.
Fixed-wing or Multirotor?: This can be either. In relation to FPV racing however, this is done with multirotors, usually mini quadcopters (4 motor multirotors). This is because you need all the agility of multirotors to get through those racing courses!
These are two examples of FPV drones. As you can see they're both small, lightweight and and have small cameras attached for the FPV. On the left, we have the Silver Blade #37 mini quadcopter and on the right we have the MicroX X160 mini quadcopter. We have a complete beginners self-build guide for the Silver Blade and the X160 comes largely pre-assembled. For a cool and educational video on FPV racing, see the video below.