Drone 101: What is a Quadcopter?

Quadcopter 101 and Multirotor 101

I was asked to write an article or ebook about the basics of quadcopters so I am kicking off a series of “getting started” articles to see if I can help people new to the hobby. Please also read for some other helpful articles.

Let me start with saying that flying model aircraft is exceptionally rewarding and quite addicting. There is just something about being able to control something that is flying that brings something out in you since it is the most accessible way for an individual to break the boundaries of Terra Firma and take to the skies.

Types of Aircraft

Traditionally you have had your choice between two basics type of aircraft, either an airplane or a helicopter. Airplanes are quite fun to fly and are generally pretty easy to learn how to fly. The downside is that they take quite a bit of space to take off, fly around, and land. The amount of space they need limits their usability to large parks, schools, or flying fields. Helicopters used to be very difficult to fly but have got much easier in recent years with tremendous advances in gyroscopes to stabilize them and Coaxial rotor designs that can be flown with now previous flight experience. The downside of helicopters, outside of the cheap toy versions, are still a little tricky to fly, do not handle wind well, and a poor landing can set you back anywhere from $20 – $60 in parts.

Enter the Quad…A Quadcopter…or multi-rotor copter has four arms with a motor and propeller on the end of each arm. In the typical configuration the rotors are arranged with two rotors turning clockwise and two rotors turning counter-clockwise. This design provides an inherent level of stability while the on-board electronics work to keep it level and turn your input commands into motion that it needs to fly.

Some advantages of quadcopters are that they are very simple machines consisting of a frame, a receiver, a flight controller, electronic speed controls, motors, and propellers where a Helicopter has numerous gears, linkages, and servos. This simplicity means that quads are easier to build, easier to repair, and less costly to repair. The typical repair cost from a bad landing or a collision with something is usually the cost of replacement props which may set you back $5 – $15.

Flying a Quad

Flying a quadcopter is somewhere in between flying an airplane and a helicopter. The left joystick controls the throttle and the yaw. Pushing the stick up will increase power causing the craft to gain altitude. Pushing the stick left or right will cause the craft to spin left or right accordingly.

The right joystick controls the pitch of the craft. Pushing the stick up will increase the rear prop speed which will lift the rear of the craft causing it to move forward. Push down and it goes backwards. Pushing left and right causes the craft to pitch and move in the specified direction.

If you have any experience in flying helicopters, you will find flying a quadcopter very easy. If you have flown airplanes before, you should be able to catch onto quad flying very easily.

Note that AR Drone by Parrot differs from most other Quads in that it is controlled by an interface on your iphone, android device or tablet.

Good, Better, Best

There are tons of models available today with low cost versions like the Syma X1 costing about $40 including a radio trasmitter. Higher end versions capable of lifting full size video cameras complete with remote viewing of the video and remote control of the camera mount can set you back upwards of $10,000. The difference between these copters boils down to the electronics and the motors. The most basic flight controllers will provide some level of stability. As you move up in price you begin to get features like altitude hold, GPS control, and advanced stabilization.

While the Syma is a remarkable achievement for its price point, the typical quadcopter is going to start at around $300 for your basic park flyer – an AR Drone or a Walkera Hoten-X. As you move into the $600 – $800 price range you gain more payload ability and more stability. Moving higher up the price ladder, you get GPS

Why Are Quadcopters becoming So Popular?

The thing that seems to be the most attractive to many people is a multi-rotors ability to lift decent payloads. Small quads can often lift up to a pound while larger craft can lift up to 10 pounds or more. For the recreational flyer, this means being able to life cameras for aerial photography or FPV (first person view) systems that allow you to fly as if you are sitting inside the craft like a pilot.

Many people are looking to actually try and make money with their copters but right now there is a ban in the USA from the FAA that prohibits the use of unmanned vehicles for commercial work. This has really hurt some small companies that were just starting to make some revenue off of aerial photography. In other countries the rules differ greatly so please do your research on this before making plans to be the next great aerial photographer.

Even from a hobby perspective, being able to record video from the point of view of the aircraft and play it back later or upload it to YouTube is quite popular. In the $500+ price range you can find quadcopters that can lift both a GoPro camera and an FPV rig.

Some models are being created to actually do aerobatic tricks like barrel rolls, loops, and flips. Since the quadcopters today have fixed pitch blades, you cannot do inverted flight but some creative electronics programming is allowing some pretty amazing feats.


Quadcopters are a great interim craft that sits in between airplanes and helicopters in terms of difficulty and they are getting easier to fly all the time. Aside from true 3D flight, such as inverted flight, quads are also getting more acrobatic giving experience flyers more fun and excitement. If you are looking for an aircraft that offers a great balance between cost, capability, and performance, then a quadcopter may be the right aircraft for you.

Our recent article Rise of the Drones lists 4 examples of current (2013) models, their price and the basic capabilities. With prices now (2013) starting as low as $35 COMPLETE, maybe the best way to decide if this is a hobby or pastime for you is to simply buy one and try it!

Note: The above is a basic introduction. As the capabilities of the quadcopters multiply – and they ARE improving quickly – more and more practical uses for the technology will become possible. Many of you reading this probably have some ideas for commercial or research applications. You are entering the field at the right time! In many ways, multirotor aircraft (which includes quadcopters) are a blank slate…much like the personal computer a few decades ago or the first cell phones. In 20 years we will all look back and say “wow, we had no idea”….

Good Flying, My friends!



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