Types of Drones: A Complete Guide of the 4 Types and What They Do

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Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are used to complete a wide range of tasks, from entertainment to changing the landscape of war.

But what are the different types of drones?

The four different types of drones are:

  • Rotary blade drones
  • Underwater drones
  • Fixed Wing drones
  • Fixed Wing Hybrid Vertical Take-off and Landing drones (VTOL)

We’ll explore these four types in-depth as well as the different classes of drones and their uses, such as photography, racing, combat, and more.

If you’re a hobby drone pilot, you’re likely familiar with quadcopters, a type of rotary blade drone, and tried racing or camera drones.

But it’s when you branch out into the various types of commercial drones and military drones that quadcopters don’t always cut it.

On top of the four drone types, we’ll also cover the different build factors (like speed, range, fuel, payload), the different applications (acrobatics, mapping, delivery), and everything in between!

How Many Different Types of Drones Are There?

In the broadest sense of the word, there are over a dozen different “types” of drones available, but we’re going to focus on the four categories every drone falls into:

The most common types of drones are rotary blade drones. These types of drones largely make up the commercial and consumer drone market and are likely what you’re personally familiar with.

Fixed wing drones and fixed wing VTOL drones make up the different types of military drones – as well as a few hobby ones – and you’ll see why later on.

Different Types of Rotary Blade Drones

When it comes to rotary blade drones, there are two options – multirotor drones and single rotor drones.

Types of multirotor drones

Multirotor drones are drones that have more than one rotor, or propeller. There are four types of multirotor drones:

Tricopters

Tricopters are drones that use three rotors and have three different sets of propellers.

Tricopters are popular consumer drones, but the more expensive models offer crucial commercial applications such as:

  • Surveillance
  • Mining
  • Recon missions

The Edge-130 UAS and Jupiter tricopters are great examples of this.

A rendering of the Edge-130 UAS. It looks like a small plane with propellers on the front of its wings, and one on top of the tail.

But in general, this type of drone is quickly fading from the public eye for multiple reasons.

There’s a lack of stability due to only having 3 rotors. The three propellers make for a choppy flight, which is particularly annoying when racing or filming aerial videography.

This led to it being quickly beaten out by quadcopters, which offered greater stability, especially with FPV.

It has a lower performance compared to other multirotor blade drones because fewer rotors mean lower speeds. Users also found obtaining replacement parts a tedious task and sometimes impossible.

Piloting is confusing with a steep learning curve. There’s been a lot of complaints about not being able to discern a tricopters nose when in flight, making piloting confusing and difficult to navigate which direction you’re going.

Overall, tricopters just lack a certain intuitiveness that makes piloting enjoyable.

That said, there’s a lot of merit to tricopters (we promise this isn’t an anti tricopter article):

  • They weigh less which means you can find cheaper models
  • They offer an impressive edge to acrobatic flying styles (i.e. it’s great for trick flying)
  • You get longer battery life thanks to its lightweight build

Quadcopters

When you think drone, this is what you’re thinking about.

Quadcopters have four rotors and are frequently used by powerhouse manufacturers like DJI and Parrot. Typically, they have four arms sprouted out from the body with propellers on top.

The DJI Mavic 2 Pro. There are four arms coming off the body with propellers attached to the top of them.

Quadcopters offer fantastic handling, an easy learning curve, and insane versatility.

You’ll find a range of consumer and commercial drones styled this way, including:

  • Camera drone
  • Racing drone
  • Trick drone
  • Toy drone
  • GPS drone

There are even websites dedicated to just exploring this singular type of drone, that’s how pilfered the market is with quadcopters.

Rescue response, video journalism, healthcare, and agriculture are only a small scope of the fields using quadcopters every day.

Prices range from under $100 to tens of thousands, especially heavy lifting drones and expensive camera drones used on movie sets.

This is the perfect option for beginners and businesses alike.

Hexacopters & Octocopters

Following previous examples, a hexacopter is a drone with 6 rotors, and octocopters are drones with 8.

As a general rule of thumb for rotary blade drones, the more rotors it has, the more stable and higher performance the drone will offer.

So naturally, drones with 6 and 8 propellers are some of the most performance-heavy drones out there.

It’s not common to see hexacopters and octocopters gracing the shelves at Walmart as they’re geared toward commercial applications.

Left: An image of a hexacopter. Right: An image of an octocopter carrying a camera.

These are the types of drones you’ll see carrying heavy payloads and taking state-of-the-art video footage and photos – with each costing around $1000 plus.

There are cheaper variations around a couple of hundred dollars you can buy, but the overall consumer market caters to quadcopters and therefore you’ll get the most benefit out of that style of drone for personal use.  

Single Rotor drones

A single rotor drone is basically a helicopter, an RC helicopter, or a helicopter drone.

They only have one rotor that sits on the top of it. They have less stability and performance than multirotor drones, however, they use significantly less energy since they’re lightweight and need less power to fly.

Fixed Wing Drones

Fixed wing drones are the next most popular drones to rotary blade drones.

They have fixed wings that jut out diagonally to the side making them look like airplanes (or paper airplanes depending on their size).

Along with having propellers, their fixed wings give them the capability to glide over the air for long amounts of time using less energy (great for military surveillance).

If you’ve worked with rotary blade drones before, expect piloting this type of drone to feel very different. There’s a different take-off procedure entirely.

While rotary blade drones can take off from the ground, fixed wing drones require a throwing start.

This YouTube video shows it well here, but essentially you hold it by the nose horizontal to the ground and throw it over your shoulder behind you going against the wind.

Common types of fixed wing drones are military drones, but you can get consumer fixed wing drones for around $50 to $300, like the Parrot Disco FPV Fixed Wing drone.

The Parrot Disco FPV Fixed Wing drone kit with FPV goggles and controller

Fixed Wing Hybrid Vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Drones

Fixed wing VTOL drones are a mixture of both worlds.

They have a fixed wingspan and the ability to glide and save energy, but they need less room for take-off and can lift off vertically from the ground and then transition to horizontal flying thanks to their rotary blades that you can tilt forward.

DeltaQuad's VTOL UAV

This drone type is becoming more popular because of its hybrid nature, with premium options costing over $100,000, although there are cheaper options.

These have been instrumental in industrial fields, especially when it comes to 3D mapping for infrastructure planning and its ability to detect issues.

They’re also used for cargo transport to offshore units like oil rigs and ships.

Underwater Drones

Not all drones are built the same and that’s especially true for underwater drones.

These are NOT to be confused with waterproof drones. Waterproof drones are often rotary blade (quadcopters) types while underwater drones are essentially fixed wing drones just under the water.

These have only recently started making their way into the consumer market, previously being used solely for professional use.

They work by being tethered to a buoyant beacon that stays on the water’s surface via a cable, and typically sport LED lights to navigate dark waters.

The Gladis Mini underwater drone. The cable run from the top to the surface and there are LED lights on the front.

Underwater drones are used for inspecting offshore foundations, so think offshore wind farms, but for us hobbyists, it’s great for catching underwater footage.

It’s worth noting that visibility underwater is very different than from above, so saving money on a 1080p camera drone may be okay in the air, but underwater it’ll have a bigger impact on quality.

Always opt for the highest quality camera you can get within your budget.

Also, it’s not for being used while in the water as controllers are rarely, if ever, waterproof, it’s more for doing the exploring for you.

Drone Build factors

Now that we’ve covered the different types of drones, it’s time to look at the varying capabilities each drone will have.

We’re going to cover:

These are the features you’d want to look at on an individual level of each drone before buying.

Size

Drones come in a range of sizes, from micro (or mini) drones to large drones. This is also where you’d find the drone’s class.

Micro drones are drones weighing under 250g. They can be small enough to fit into your pocket and have a rotary blade design.

Professionally, these are used for land monitoring, but they are also fantastic entry-level quadcopters for new pilots and trying out fun FPV kits.

Small drones are slightly bigger, hovering around 200g to 1000g in weight. Some use the term micro drone to refer to all smaller drones, however, there is a difference. These are very portable and fit comfortably in your hands.

The most popular small drone is the DJI Mini 2. You can get absolutely stunning cameras and racing drones in this size.

The DJI MINI 2 being held comfortably with one hand

Medium-sized drones are around 1kg to 600kg and are very popular in the consumer market, like the sizes above. Some may require the use of multiple people to carry and transport them.

Popular mid-sized drones are the DJI Air 2S and Inspire 2.

These do technically fall under Class 2 tactical military drones (150-600kg), used for medium-range surveillance. They can have MALE (medium altitude long endurance) or HALE (high altitude long endurance) capabilities.

A popular military drone in this range is the Watchkeeper.

Large drones are 600kg plus and are similar to the size of an aircraft. These are found in the military and used for surveillance, strategy, and combat.

Payload

Payload refers to the amount of weight a drone can carry and the weight supported by the propellers.

It’s classified into four categories and can more or less be matched to the drone’s size, i.e. micro drones have a lightweight payload.

Featherweight specifically refers to nano drones, or drones weighing as little as 11 grams. They can carry anywhere between 4g and 100g.

Lightweight payload signifies mini or small drones – so those weighing between 200g-100g and can carry 150-270g. Again, a great example of this is the DJI Mini 2 which actually carries 20g over its own weight (283g payload, weighs 249g)

Middleweight payload goes with medium-sized drones. Consumer and commercial middleweight drones carry anywhere between 400-1460g and military-grade drones carry 40kg to 150kg.

Lastly, heavyweight payload refers to large drones that carry 550kg and up.

Drone Range

A drone’s range tells you how far the drone can fly away from the controller without losing the signal.

It should be noted that you will need a special license to fly anything more than very close range.

Very Close RangeClose RangeShort RangeMid RangeLong Range
Distance200ft to 6.2mi30 miles90 miles400 miles400 miles+
Flight Timeup to 45 minutesup to 6 hours8-12 hours24 hours+up to 168 hours
Altitude1,200ft3,500ft18,000ft30,000ft60,000ft+
UsesToys, HobbyMilitaryMilitaryMilitaryMilitary
A chart containing the different range classes for drones

IMPORTANT: While very close range drones can fly up to 1,200ft altitude, you can legally only fly up to 400ft. Anything higher risks legal repercussions for entering controlled airspace.

Read here for the drones with the longest flight time

Fuel

There are a few ways drones are powered, with most of the consumer market using battery-powered drones but there are also gas, nitro fuel, and green energy-powered drones.

Batteries are the primary source of power and come in either Lithium Polymer, NiMH (Nickle Metal Hydride), or NiCd (Nickle-Cadmium).

Battery power drones won’t have long flight times because the weight and performance of the drone drains the battery, but it’s portable and easy to use.

Large drones will use gasoline because it’s lightweight and means you can use your drone as long as you can refuel it.

Nitro fuel is used to increase speed.

It allows the rotor to run higher rotations per minute (rpm) without it overheating so it can fly faster.

There’s also been a record of solar-powered drones, specifically fixed wing drones, where you can easily situate solar panels on the wings.

Drone Categories

There are a ton of ways to use drones ranging across a multitude of markets and industries and come as either DIY or Ready-to-Fly.

DIY are drones you build yourself and RTF drones (Ready-to-Fly) are preassembled drones ready to go out of the box.

It’s worth mentioning that within these drone applications, the UAVs themselves will sport a host of features such as follow-me functions where the drone follows you, waypoint systems, and many others that you can find on the specs of the drone you have in mind.

These functions are aimed at enhancing whatever purpose or application you’re buying the drone for.

Toy Drones

Toy drones are drones created to appeal to younger audiences, likely 14 years old or under.

They will comply with toy safety regulations and are often cheaper, but also less powerful than racing or camera drones.

The Holy Stone HS210 Kids Mini Drone

Their primary use will be for entertainment, and they’ll have incredibly easy learning curves suited to the intended audience.

They usually weigh less than 250 grams.

Aside from being a great gift for a kid, these are also great options for beginners in general, because it’s a cheap machine you can make mistakes with without huge risk and then move up to more specialized drones afterward.

Racing Drones

Racing drones are models that have an emphasis on speed and are used to participate in drone racing competitions.

You’ll fly through three-dimensional courses at speeds over 100 mph.

You’ll also use FPV, or first-person view, where you’ll wear a head mount that gives you the same view as the drone as you race.

Racing drones can cost over a couple of hundred dollars, like the Walkera F210 3D, but there are more affordable options for those looking to test it out.

Photography Drones

Photography drones, or camera drones, lean into the more artistic side of drones as well as the functional.

Drones with cameras give the user a vantage point that would otherwise be impossible to see from the ground, as well as give views of areas that are inaccessible or dangerous to humans.

A few uses include:

  • Photography (obviously)
  • Videography/Filmmaking
  • Search and rescue
  • Mapping
  • Surveillance

The list goes with all the applications of the camera drones and they’re employed across a range of industries like mining, agriculture, and state jobs as well as becoming an increasingly popular hobby.

Trick Drones/Stunt Drones

Trick drones are pretty much as they sound, drones used to do fun aerial tricks in the air.

You can do flips and pair with FPV for an incredible time.

You don’t have to shed out loads for a fun stunt drone, there are plenty of options sitting under $100, but more advanced options will cost a couple hundred.

Stunt drones can also be camera or racing drones.

Delivery Drones

Delivery drones are used to deliver cargo.

These can be smaller packages, like the Amazon drone delivery service which works on land delivering moderate size to small-sized packages.

A rendering of the Amazon delivery drone over a city

There are also heavyweight drones like we mentioned earlier, that would deliver large cargo to hard-to-reach areas.

GPS Drones

While all drones need a GPS function, GPS drones feature a specific module that allows them to know their location in relation to satellites.

This gives them autonomous flight functions, like the ability to fly home and waypoint navigation, which is where you can set multiple locations or “points” for your drone to autonomously fly too.

This is particularly useful for surveying areas, like in agriculture where they have to survey miles and miles of farmland, or for decoy drones.

The Different Drones Types & You

When you ask how many kinds of drones are there, there are really only four types a drone can be, but there’s tons of variation within those types.

For us everyday users, we’ll likely be looking for a drone in the consumer market and avoid pricey professional drones as they target businesses.

Consumer drones come in a range of budgets, and support camera, racing, stunt, and toy use.

If you need help figuring out which one to get, check out our roundup of the best drones for every price range!

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I'm a relatively new drone enthusiast, only picking up the hobby within the last year, but I can wholeheartedly say I've fallen in love with it. Camera drones are my favorite, you can catch me with my DJI mini 2 camping in the peak district – but I find all UAVs fascinating. I'm always looking to learn more, so feel free to drop a comment and start up a conversation!

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