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April 12, 2019

Up, Up and Away: How Do Drones Work? .

    Up, Up and Away: How Do Drones Work?


    CTIA Research Team

    Drones are a headline-making piece of technology, capable of capturing incredible video in the hands of skilled pilots and providing some serious internet entertainment when a dog mistakes one for a frisbee. We’ve watched drones perform record-breaking Super Bowl light shows, and looked on as they provided media coverage and relief assistance in the wake of devastating hurricanes.

    With a joystick and a GPS system, the operations of most consumer drones seem no more complex than playing a video game. However, behind the easy user interface are an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and other complex technologies working to make the mechanics of drone flight as smooth as possible.

    How do these mechanical features work? How does a drone actually fly? A little wireless technology and a whole lot of physics.


    Drones can be controlled remotely, often from a smartphone or tablet. Wireless connectivity lets pilots view the drone and its surroundings from a birds-eye perspective. Users can also leverage apps to pre-program specific GPS coordinates and create an automated flight path for the drone. Another handy wirelessly-enabled feature is the ability to track battery charge in real time, an important consideration since drones use smaller batteries to keep their weight low.


    A drone relies on rotors for its vertical motion. Drones use their rotors—which consist of a propeller attached to a motor—to hover, meaning the downward thrust of the drone is equal to the gravitational pull working against it; climb, when pilots increase the speed until the rotors produce an upward force greater than gravity; and descend, when pilots perform the opposite and decrease speed.

    To hover, two of a drone’s four rotors move clockwise, while the other two move counterclockwise, ensuring that the sideways momentum of the drone remains balanced. To avoid throwing its vertical motion off-kilter, the other two rotors on the drone will increase their spin. The same principle applies to moving forward and backwards—the rotors of the drone must apply thrust while making sure the spin of the rotors keeps the drone balanced.

    Accelerometer and Altimeter

    An accelerometer feeds the drone information about its speed and direction, while an altimeter tells the machine its altitude. These features also help a drone land slowly and safely, preventing it from sinking into an air vacuum called a wash that could pull the aircraft down in an unpredictable way.


    Some drones have built-in cameras onboard that allow the pilot to see where the drone is flying without having a direct line of sight to the device. Drone-mounted cameras help users see difficult-to-reach locations and can be a game-changing tool for first responders, especially in search-and-rescue scenarios.

    The intricate engineering that goes into building drones means that pilots don’t need to worry about balance, thrust, and other complexities, and can just enjoy the act of flying them. The ultra-responsive nature of the machines, which will only be heightened with 5G, even allows experts to race drones through high-speed obstacle courses.

    Drones are versatile pieces of equipment that harness the power of wireless technology to do everything from taking video to assisting in emergencies. And their utility is only going to grow as the technology evolves and the world becomes more connected. You can learn more about the transformative potential of drones here.

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