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A friend hissed at me last week as we stood side by side in my backyard, holding little plastic controllers in our hand, “Stop calling them drones, they’re just RC helicopters.” After some Googling, it turns out that he’s right.
Are RC helicopters considered drones? An RC helicopter, as the name suggests, is a remote-controlled model aircraft. Meanwhile, drones are unmanned aircraft that may be flown autonomously via programming done on its onboard computers. They are different in terms of build, functionality, and technology used.
However, those are just the main differences between drones and RC helicopters. There are several other interesting ways to distinguish between these two flying wonders that can help you decide which one to buy, so read on.
RC Helicopters vs. Drones: All the Differences
The first thing that you will notice is that drones are often built differently from an RC helicopter. As a model aircraft, RC helicopters look like the real thing: with one rotor at the top and a spheroid body.
Drones come in different shapes and sizes, but the most common one is the quadcopter, which has a squarish body with four rotors. These rotors give the drone a more stable flight.
Price, History, and Applications
Drones are generally more expensive than RC helicopters. Even the most basic ones can be pricier than RC helicopters with better specs.
RC helicopters have been around for a long time, with some sources citing that these toys first came out in the 1960s. More than 50 years of history didn’t change how people used RC helicopters that much. They are still considered toys and flying them is pursued as a hobby. Most of the RC helicopters that we can buy today are meant for fun flying.
Drones, on the other hand, came out much more recently. It was the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency that first used them.
In 2002, the CIA used an unmanned drone for the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden. The military had been using drones over Afghanistan two years before the attack.
Over the years, however, drones have taken on less onerous and more wholesome tasks. Parts and technology used in drones became more accessible to ordinary consumers.
Most people now know of drones as a tool used for aerial photography. Drones carrying cameras can take images that give you a bird’s eye view of everything below.
More recently, Uber announced plans to use drones to deliver your food.
These applications in photography and food delivery are far from the intended use of drones toppling terrorists in a Middle Eastern country.
RC helicopters, meanwhile, remain purely recreational. Hobbyists tinker with them, while most others learn to fly them. Most of the time, it is fun, and you develop a new skill.
Drones use more advanced technologies and are more solidly built. Aside from targeted kills, food delivery, and aerial photography, according to this website, drones have been used by:
- Utility firms to check electrical towers and other facilities
- National and state parks to manage resources and even check on fires and other happenings within the area
- Government agencies to deliver communications tools, medicines, and other supplies to remote areas, or to deliver relief goods to areas affected by disasters
- Governments to relay wireless Internet hotspots and radio signals to help restore coverage in disaster areas
- Search and rescue services which equip drones with thermal imaging cameras to help find lost people in remote areas
- You can take drones to your backyard, the park, or even just inside your living room and have fun flying it
Depending on where you live, you may need to follow certain rules when you fly a drone. In the United States, for example, the Federal Aviation Authority requires you to register your drone and fly it only for recreational purposes.
They also require you to contact a community-based organization and ask for safety guidelines in flying your drone. Other regulations are found on the FAA website.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission requires remote pilots of RC helicopters to use amateur radio frequencies.
RC helicopters are not under FAA jurisdiction. But that may change if the agency gets its way: they want to treat radio-controlled helicopters and planes the same way they handle drones.
If not, you may pay a stiff fine. That is what happened to David Zablidowsky, who was fined $2,200 for recklessly flying a drone in New York City, according to this Bloomberg report.
Ever wonder why drones are much more expensive than RC helicopters? It is because of the technology you can find in a drone. These flying wonders have a range of technologies that RC helicopters, as a rule, cannot accommodate, and this is what makes drones more attractive to a lot of people.
For one, drones have satellite-linked navigation systems such as GPS and GLONASS. These systems help the drone know its location, and these come very useful in applications such as landscape surveying, 3D mapping, and search and rescue missions.
Moreover, these navigational capabilities allow your drone to return to you. This is a safety feature that some of the higher-end products boast of.
Drones also have several sensors that enable them to detect obstacles and avoid collisions. Some of these sensors are:
- Vision sensor
- LIDAR, or light detection and ranging
- Time of flight
- Monocular vision
To give you an idea of what these sensors can do, let us take a look at LIDAR. This sensor measures the distance between the drone and an identified target using laser light. As such, the drone can know how far a certain object is and how much time it has before reaching it, and it can then avoid coming into contact with it if necessary.
While drones are designed to be balanced and stable, they also have different technologies that allow them to fly smoothly. For one, there is the embedded gyroscope stabilization technology, which helps keep your drone steady in the air. The gyroscope also sends navigational information for the central controller to process.
Drones also use internal measurement units that detect the rate of acceleration using a battery of accelerometers. The IMU is responsible for detecting changes in the pitch, yaw, and roll and other rotational attributes. It may also use a magnetometer that will help calibrate the drone to avoid orientation drift.
Some drones also have cutting-edge technology that can tell you if it is okay to fly or if the area you are in is a no-fly zone. You can also expect to find an internal compass in most drones, which enables it to detect its exact flight location.
What’s more, you can fit a high-resolution camera on your drone, allowing you to see what it sees. A drone can also be used for photography and videography. In fact, 4K video drones are now available.
Gimbals help the drone get a steady shot. Gimbals allow the drones to tilt while flying and make it possible to capture images that have unique angles while reducing camera shake.
Drones that are equipped with cameras have live video transmission capabilities, and some can even work on Wi-Fi or LTE networks.
These are just some of the technologies that drones are or can be equipped with. These are also technologies that you generally won’t be able to find on an RC helicopter.
RC Helicopters and Drones: More Differences
How else are drones different from RC helicopters?
- Control. The technology you find on drones allows it to fly autonomously, which you cannot do with an RC helicopter as it needs you to do the maneuvering.
- Navigation. You can control your RC helicopter using a controller. With drones, you can use a smartphone or a tablet to control them, on top of remote controllers.
- Programming. You can program drones but not RC helicopters.
- Operating frequencies. RC helicopters often communicate with the remote controller on three different frequencies: 40 megahertz, 72 megahertz, and 2.4 gigahertz. Drones work on 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz.
- The difficulty of flight. RC helicopters are much more difficult to fly and takes longer to master. Drones, on the other hand, have autonomous modes that can help even beginners to fly it with ease.
Advantages of Flying an RC Helicopter
While drones are currently more popular, do not turn your nose up on remote-controlled helicopters just yet. There are certain instances when an RC helicopter is considered to be a better option than a drone.
RC helicopters are favored by people who want full control of their flying fun. You have very few or no autonomous modes. Keeping the RC helicopter in the air and having it go where you want it to go is all about skill. And some people do love the challenge.
What’s more, flying an RC helicopter takes longer to master than piloting a drone. So, it does require a lot of patience, time, and practice. As such, getting to the point of mastery gives a better sense of fulfillment.
You can often get longer flight times with a lightweight RC helicopter compared to drones, especially the more expensive ones. What’s more, if you are launching from uneven ground, you’d have no problems with an RC helicopter. Plus, they respond faster to your commands.
Lastly, an RC helicopter has very basic parts, and you wouldn’t have to spend a lot on equipment. They are also easier to maintain than drones.
So in a general sense, RC helicopters have these advantages over drones:
- They are easier to maintain and are less complicated.
- They give you complete control of your flight with very few autonomous modes, if any.
- They are more challenging yet more fulfilling to master.
- They can take off on uneven ground.
- They respond quickly to commands.
Advantages of Flying a Drone
A drone comes in many shapes, forms, and sizes, but most people currently own a quadcopter. If you want to fly an unmanned aircraft without too much of a learning curve, a drone with its stabilization and navigation features will be perfect for you. You can get a drone that can hold the altitude it is flying on, that can follow you around, or that can even fly and land by itself.
But the biggest draw for people wanting a drone is not about the flying itself; it’s what you can do while flying. Because it is more stable than an RC helicopter, it can be equipped with a camera and a gimbal.
You can take photos with a drone, and these pictures give you a different point of view. You can also get first-person views, where you can see what the camera is seeing on your mobile phone or some other display. Put on FPV goggles, and you have a more immersive experience that’s quite impressive.
More than that, drone components are sturdier and easier to replace than those of an RC helicopter. An RC helicopter can get really damaged when it crashes and replacing parts can be more costly than just buying a new one.
A drone is more resistant to damage when it does crash. If something gets damaged, you can replace that part easily.
Lastly, because drones are more popular, there is a world of options for you to go through. This, in turn, allows you to buy the drone that you really want without having to go over your budget.
To wit, choose a drone if you want:
- A more user- and beginner-friendly aircraft
- Plan to carry payloads such as a camera or other similarly weighted objects
- A more damage-resistant aircraft with easily repaired or replaced parts
- More choices to suit your needs
Try One Out!
If you are interested in flying either a drone or an RC helicopter, here are some of our recommended products.
For under $150, you can get a drone featuring a full high-definition camera that gives you excellent eye-popping photos. This drone works with a Wi-Fi connection that ensures reliable transmission from the remote controller to the drone.
The Drocon GPS Drone boasts several other notable features, including GPS auto return, follow-me flight mode, and programs that guarantee it does not fly out of range. You can fly this drone for up to 15 minutes with a full battery.
If price and budget are not a factor in your decision, then check out the DJI Mavic 2 PRO. Or better yet, get all the works, including a Hasselblad camera, lens filters, smart controller, 128-gigabyte SD card, and other accessories.
The drone itself is certainly something to write home about, as it has 31 minutes of flight time, enough sensors that make it worth its price, and the ability to capture crisp and clear photos with the 20-megapixel CMOS sensor on the included camera.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the ATOYX Mini Drones that you can own for less than $25. This toy drone is great for kids and beginners. It’s also perfect for those who want to practice flying a drone before investing in a more expensive one.
What’s more, it has some cool features for its low price range, including altitude hold, headless mode, and one key takeoff and landing. It can do flips in the air, as well as fly for up to 16 minutes before you need to recharge its battery.
The ArgoHome RC Helicopter gives you a better deal than most other similar products out there. Aside from its body being made of crash-resistant materials, it comes with a gyroscope that makes it easier to fly than traditional RC helicopters.
However, this flying toy has shorter flight times. You can only fly it for up to eight minutes with a full battery. The battery has a 30-minute charging time.
If you are a serious hobbyist or if you are thinking of becoming one, you can splurge on a Blade 230 S V2 RTF RC Helicopter. It can help you hone your flying skills in no time, allowing you to progress from being a newbie to somebody performing skilled maneuvers using any one of its three flight modes:
- Stability mode for beginners
- Agility mode for those who like full control of their helicopter
- 3D mode that makes flips and rolls possible
The kit includes the RC helicopter, a set of Spektrum transmitter and receiver, servo, brushless main and tail motors, and a Li-Po battery pack and charger.
Drones vs. RC Helicopters: Which One Is Better?
Drones and RC helicopters have their fans. People who like an easy and fun time piloting an unmanned aircraft would love drones. So would people who like to have devices featuring the latest technology.
Drones have more uses, as well, with aerial photography being the most popular. However, drones are more expensive than RC helicopters and way more complex.
Hobbyists and casual flyers, however, swear by their RC helicopters. Remotely piloting an RC helicopter helps them acquire mild flying skills. There are no shortcuts and no autonomous technologies: you do the flying on your own.
RC helicopters are also ideal for those who are looking for a more affordable aircraft.
Ultimately which is better is debatable and will vary depending on your personal tastes. Some people will love the ease of use while others prefer a more challenging experience. Only you can decide which is best for you!
Check out this video below to see some more comparisons