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How Do Drones Fly? (Controls and Flight Movements)

Updated in 2022 by Paul Posea
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A drone can seem like an incredibly simple machine in the hands of an experienced pilot. After all, it’s controlled by shifting around the joysticks on a handheld device.

It’s a pretty common assumption to make. But when you actually start preparing for your first flight, you’ll realize there’s a lot to learn.

You’ll suddenly have hundreds of questions running through your mind. And based on personal experience, I bet most of them will be about the purpose of each control and how drones actually fly.

Here’s the thing: drone controls and flight movements are closely-related topics. You need to understand the basics of control features to know how they translate into action.

In this post, we’ll be covering exactly those things. The following sections will touch on the roles played by drone mechanics and the physics behind drone flight.

And as a side note, the extra knowledge is bound to help you develop your skills much quicker.

How do drone controls work?

The features of a drone flight completely depend on the information sent via a drone controller. But how is this information even sent? And what does it consist of? Take a look.

Drone controls work through radio signals that are sent from the controller’s transmitter to the drone’s receiver. Drone components, like the flight controller, then execute the commands that had come in the form of signals. At the same time, there are numerous sensors that ensure smooth operation.

So, there are two main devices that are used in the working of drone controls. The transmitter converts the commands input by the pilot into radio signals and the receiver uses those signals to obtain electronic data.

What happens next involves the use of complex technology — like accelerometers and gyroscopes.

All you need to know, for now, is that the technology keeps unpredictability at bay and allows the drone to make the correct shifts in power. The latter refers to changing the speed of each propeller so the drone moves the way intended by the pilot.

When talking about drone controls, there are only four basic movements that a drone can make. Here are brief explanations of them:

Roll

A roll is done by pushing the controller’s right stick sideways.

The action associated with the term is its literal meaning. The drone “rolls” and moves right or left depending on which way the stick is pushed.

To make this happen, the power given to the motors on one side is reduced. The propellers on that side consequently spin slower.

Pitch

The pitch is controlled by pushing the controller’s right stick up or down.

The action refers to the drone tilting and moving forward or backward. This doesn’t have anything to do with the drone’s altitude.

It’s achieved by changing the power given to the front two or rear two motors. For forward movement, for example, the rear two propellers spin faster while the front two propellers are slowed down.

Yaw

This is controlled by pushing the controller’s left stick sideways.

It refers to the clockwise or counterclockwise rotation about the drone’s vertical axis. In other words, controlling the yaw allows the pilot to change the direction the drone faces.

Yaw movement is achieved by changing the speeds of propellers in a diagonal pattern.

Throttle

The throttle is controlled by pushing the controller’s left stick up or down.

This one refers to the drone's vertical movement and is directly related to its altitude. This is where the drone goes higher or lower.

Controlling the throttle simply results in all of the propellers spinning faster or slower.

The sections that follow may feature flight movements that are a combination of the four above. So, a clear understanding of them will allow you to work out parts of the upcoming explanations yourself.

How does a drone move up?

Let’s consider the first stage of drone flight: takeoff. Here’s how a drone generates enough lift to move upwards.

A drone moves up by creating an upward force greater than gravity. This lift is generated by the propellers (spinning at fast speeds) that act as wings. They push down on the air and, in turn, the air pushes the drone upwards. The process is a result of the pilot using the throttle control.

One thing to note is that a drone doesn’t immediately start moving up when the throttle is pushed. The speed of the propellers needs to be slowly increased until the lift produced is greater than the drone’s weight.

This is particularly important for pilots just getting their hands on a drone. You need to be comfortable with the throttle’s sensitivity to avoid an instant mishap.

The created lift grows as the propellers spin faster. So, when the throttle is pushed as far as possible, the drone rotors will be generating maximum thrust.

How do you control the direction of a drone?

Once the drone’s up in the air, it needs to be maneuvered in a certain way. This part particularly applies to camera drones. Pilots need to keep them steady and facing the right way at all times.

Here are a few pointers on (smooth) directional control for beginners.

You control the direction of a drone by adjusting its roll, pitch, yaw, and throttle movements. The left stick allows you to keep the drone flying and facing the same direction. The right stick, on the other hand, is used for maneuvering. Pushing it allows you to control which way the drone moves.

The truth is that drone flights require a lot of little adjustments. Your drone may start to lose its height on its own as you’re moving it in a particular direction. That’s when you’ll have to push the left stick as well for thrust control.

Similarly, your drone may start facing the wrong direction due to the wind. The left stick, again, will allow you to reposition the drone through a yawing motion.

The best part about drones is that you — as a pilot — don’t have to worry about any technical complexities. The onboard components ensure the drone continues to fly simply due to the laws of physics.

The rotors propel the drone to stay airborne but also spin in opposite directions

The flight controller, meanwhile, translates the adjustments you make using the sticks into changing the rotor speeds for maneuverability. Surrounding data is also taken into account to counter external forces.

How do drones hover?

Other than moving vertically and turning, drones can also hover at the same height. Here’s what goes on to make that possible.

Drones hover when the lift produced by their rotors completely cancels out with the force of gravity. This results in a net force of zero. Depending on the setting of a particular flight, the pilot may have to use their controller to vary rotor speeds so the momentum stays balanced.

Previously we talked about using the right stick to move the drone. This time, the right stick is supposed to be subtly pushed to keep the drone in place.

Modern drones are fitted with stabilization systems and can typically maintain their position even in the face of light breezes. However, most models still eventually require the attention of a pilot to prevent them from slowly drifting away.

How do quadcopters rotate?

There’s a bit more to rotations than other flight movements in the conceptual sense. Here’s how four-rotor drones rotate.

Quadcopters rotate by speeding up two diagonal motors and slowing down the other two to generate a non-zero angular momentum. For example, a quadcopter will turn right (in place) if the two motors spinning in the clockwise direction are sped up. The altitude remains the same due to constant lift.

I’ve already mentioned how the drone rotors spin in opposite directions to prevent continuous rotations.

However, using the yaw control allows us to vary the power given to a pair of diagonal motors. This results in a net rotation to one side.

The electronic speed control (ESC) ensures the shifts in voltage are smoothly executed to prevent the drone from violently spinning out mid-air.

Newer pilots are always advised to get comfortable with the yaw control in a safe setting. Making a few 360-degree rotations will familiarize you with how quickly the movement is generated. 

Can all drones do flips?

We’ve covered all of the simple flight movements up until now. And honestly, those are all a camera drone pilot typically needs.

But it goes without saying that the aspirations of the drone community stretch far and wide. A lot of pilots devote their time to performing drone stunts, one of the most popular ones being flips.

But can any drone be used for such performances? Here’s the answer.

Most drones can indeed do flips. It’s a common misconception that a drone can’t flip if its controller doesn’t have a specific button for it. The truth is that a flip can usually be performed manually. However, some drones are definitely better than others at doing flips.

You may be wondering how drones can perform these rolls and loops.

Well, it all goes back to manipulating the drone by combining the four basic flight controls in roll, pitch, yaw, and throttle.

Once you’ve mastered the basic movements, there’s a lot you can do by simply flicking the sticks. Flips are basically done by pushing the throttle and pitch controls to their extents.

The speed of the motors on the side that needs to rotate up is significantly increased. When the drone is upside down, the throttle is nearly reduced to zero to prevent a change in altitude.

This is done at a high angular velocity to ensure the drone flips in the same place.

Drones that are better for performing similar tricks include the DJI FPV, the Air Hogs 360 Hoverblade, and the Yuneec Mantis Q.

Conclusion - how does a quadcopter work?

To wrap things up, there are a number of complex technologies that ensure a drone’s smooth operation. However, the concept behind drone flight at its core is fairly simple.

A quadcopter works by using its four propellers to create lift by establishing a flow of air. The propeller pairs spin in opposite directions to generate zero torque. This prevents the quadcopter from spinning with them. A quadcopter also makes use of a connectivity system and loads of sensors.

Once the pilot triggers the control sticks, signals reach the quadcopter’s flight controller. This component is otherwise known as the brain of the system. It forwards relevant data to the ESC which then executes the commands through the rotors.

It’s needless to say that there are several other components that are part of a quadcopter’s propulsion system. But fortunately enough, a pilot can safely progress through their journey without learning about each of them (and the computational calculations made in between).

author-paul-posea-picture
Hi, I'm Paul.
A big drone enthusiast, reviewing, comparing and writing about drones since 2015. I'm all about helping people enjoy and even monetize their hobby.
paul posea
Paul Posea
Hi, I'm a long-time drone reviewer and I hope my articles and comparisons on this site as well as Dronesgator's youtube channel are of as much help as possible.

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