Drone vs Helicopter? What is the difference?

QDrone vs Helicopter? What is the difference?

Technically what is the difference here?

AThe Answer


Technically there is no difference between drones and helicopters. That’s because they are not mutually exclusive things. You see, a drone could be made in the form of a helicopter, an airplane, or even a balloon. A drone is just a popular term for any unmanned aerial vehicle. So, by popular terminology, any vehicle that flies and doesn’t have a pilot inside the cockpit manually steering it would be a drone. It could be controlled by a human via a remote or by pre-programmed computer software.

This is just what the average person thinks of when they hear the term drone, but the true definition is a bit more complex. By the popular definition above, even a missile would be considered a drone, so the military and the government have a more detailed definition, but not for the word drone. Since the term drone is more of a pop culture word, the military defines UAVs and UAS. A UAV, which stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, is a remote or software piloted flying aircraft capable of reuse. This knocks missiles out of the running as they aren’t capable of reuse. The term UAS includes the drone and any ground and remote systems that are used to control the flight of the vehicle including software programming.

So if we were to just look at the term drone, then that can really be used to mean any unmanned vehicle operated either through software or the use of a remote pilot. A drone can be made in the shape of an airplane, a helicopter, a quadcopter, or even submarine for that matter.

A recent article from the Diplomat illustrates the point. The U.S. Navy plans on deploying underwater drones by the end of 2015. They are calling them UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles).

So if drones and helicopters can be the same, why aren’t there many drone helicopter for sale?

Just because there aren’t many drone helicopters for sale, doesn’t mean they don’t have them. Take a look at the Yamaha RMAX dronehelicopter

This badboy is a two-bladed unmanned gasoline powered helicopter drone controlled by a remote pilot and used for a variety of agricultural and industrial purposes in Japan.

Here are two more drone helicopters: dronehelicopter_2 dronehelicopter_3

As you can see, most of them are for industrial and government/authority uses.The reason we don’t often see hobbyist drones in the form of a helicopter comes down to mechanical complexity and costs. You see the flight of a helicopter is controlled by the pitch of the rotor blades and the tail rotor. The parts responsible for adjusting the pitch are complicated and expensive.

The amount of mechanical engineering and technology that needs to go into a helicopter drone gets expensive very quickly. It’s pretty cool and has tons of capabilities, but not many hobbyists are willing to shell out nearly $100,000 for one.

Quadcopters on the other hand, the most common form of hobbyist drones, are controlled by four fixed-pitch fan blades which spin at varying speeds to control flight. To make a quadcopter yaw or turn, one or two of the blades just increases or reduces their speed.They have very simple mechanics with only one moving part, a fan attached to an engine. This makes them easier to produce, more reliable, and less costly. The two photos below illustrate the vast difference in the complexity between helicopter mechanics and quadcopter mechanics.

Look at all of the connecting and moving parts on a helicopter rotor: dronehelicopter_5
Now look at how simple a quadcopter rotor is: dronehelicopter_6
If you look at the most popular drones available in the hobbyist price range, you can see they all have a quadcopter design.

You have the DJI Phantom 3 dronehelicopter_7

The DJI Inspire 1 dronehelicopter_8

And the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 dronehelicopter_9

These quadcopter designs are much more reasonable priced and can be anywhere from as low as $100 on up to $3000. The prices can get so low because of the simplicity in the mechanical designs. There are a few hobbyist helicopter drones and I’ve linked to some below, but they aren’t nearly as cool or commonly available as the quadcopter designs. In fact most of the affordable-priced helicopter drones are really just RC models which don’t have any kind of autonomous flying software to allow them to get past line of sight operation or return to their take off point without human control.

You have the WL V912 dronehelicopter_10

But you’ll only get a 150 meter control range with it as it uses radio control frequencies.

You also have the HiSKY dronehelicopter_11

But for the $1000+ it is going to cost you, you can get a much cooler quadcopter with more capabilities.There are a few more out there, but none of them offer the versatility and flying precision of a quadcopter.

So if quadcopters are so much cheaper and more reliable, why don’t pilots fly them instead of helicopters?

Quadcopters are cheaper to produce and need less maintenance to maintain top performance, but that doesn’t make them easier to fly. Quadcopters have a vast amount of onboard software that stabilizes flight. Without it, they would be nearly impossible for a human to fly. There are too many variables to consider. Instead of controlling the pitch of one blade, the pilot would have to adjust and control four different fans simultaneously.

This video illustrates the point. Look what happens when you mess with the electronic stabilization parameters of a quadcopter.

It basically crashes immediately. This makes them impractical for piloted vehicles.

In addition to being much more complex to control and steer without the assistance of onboard software, the quadcopter design is much less efficient. Moving twice the amount of air at a lower speed is easier than moving less air at faster speeds. This means that helicopter blades can spin at a much lower speed than quadcopter blades and still produce more lift. Quadcopter blades are generally smaller than helicopter blades and spin at higher speeds. They also require energy to slow the blades during aerial maneuvers. Helicopters don’t have to exhaust energy slowing the blades as adjusting the pitch controls all aerial maneuvers. Currently helicopters are capable of longer flight times on the same amount of energy versus a drone.

So in short, there is no difference between a helicopter and a drone. Drones can be made in any shape or size, it just means that it is a moving vehicle of some kind without a pilot inside the craft, but when most people mention a drone today, they are typically speaking about quadcopter designs.