How Do Drones Work?

Abandon Normal Devices came together with Marshmallow Laser Feast and the University of Salford to embark on a research project, titled Project Daedalus. The project looks at the emerging field of ‘drone cinema’. This research is an exciting opportunity to repurpose drones for creative control creating multi-user experiences and new audience environments. As part of our drone toolkit, here is a short guide on how drones work. Find out more about Abandon Normal Devices here

Drones have evolved so rapidly that new innovations are cropping up regularly on crowdfunding platforms and a new headline about a drone application hits the news nearly every week. From a technological perspective, many of these developments revolve around the different components of drones, with battery life, robustness, and precision being the most common areas for improvement and innovative modifications.

You can read more about our thinking around how these developments may be used for audience engagement, narrative and accessibility in the HISTORY & CONTEXT section. Here, we provide an overview of the possibilities and promise of the latest drone designs that may be useful for your own project.


Many drone models feature a game-controller style of manual control, which has a learning curve for those not familiar with this type of system, but offers excellent manual control once mastered. As drone technology has advanced and become more popular, other types of controllers have come to the fore. You can now buy drones, for example, which are controlled using a smartphone screen. This works by creating a wifi spot between the drone and your mobile device, which then allows them to talk to each other while you pilot the vehicle using an interface with a joystick-like design.

Another recent development in intuitive control is the use of the mobile device as a complete control system, which uses its accelerometer to control the drone. Once paired, your mobile device controls the drone’s flight by tilting in the direction you want to go. There are limitations with these systems – such as their shorter range, and the possibility of the signal dropping out. A control system reliant on a wifi connection will be much shorter than if simply reliant on a radio signal connecting the two, and less reliable. However, the advantage of these designs were apparent in our workshop; people without any flying experience seemed to find the Bebop Parrot drone, piloted by ipad, the easiest and most intuitive compared to using traditional analogue sticks. In any case, the principles are similar for both where ‘pitch’, ‘yaw’, and ‘roll’ cover the 3 axes of movement for a UAV.

The rise of gesture control is arguably the next obvious step in controller design. Gesture control, the ability to direct a drone’s movement through movement of the body, is highly intuitive. While not yet perfected, the concept has some novel application possibilities in theatrical productions and the researchers are already beginning to experiment with using gesture control as a rehabilitative technique in cases of injury recovery – as for this project at the University of Central Lancashire. Here’s an example of how gesture control can work:


Our Drone Lab with the Royal College of Art saw one designer create a drone controlled using facial expressions, demonstrating how far the technology could be taken.

Semi-Autonomous Flight

One of the really exciting features of recent drone systems is their capacity to undertake pre-programmed flight paths, which, to some extent, negates the need to be a good pilot. While the CAA advice always requires that a pilot can take control of a drone, in any emergency situation, you can technically plot out the way points for your drone on a computer and Google maps, which is then loaded onto the drone for it to carry out the flight path. This form of semi-autonomous flight is a good way to ensure you can plan out a flight path and know how long it will take to complete. It also leaves you freer to control the camera and focus on the shots you want.

Higher Authority Autonomous Systems

A more technologically complex system for drone control is what the CAA call ‘higher autonomy’ flight, which essentially provides completely autonomous systems. With these models, the drone decides where it flies, learns where to fly next, and carries out its own missions. A glimpse of such a system is found in the recently launched Grasp project, which uses a mobile phone as an onboard control unit where the drone’s flight path is informed by radio photogrammetry – thousands of images taken quickly which tell the drone about the direction it can take, any obstacles in its way, and so on. This takes the element of human error further away from the flight path, though a steeper learning curve may apply in planning the drone’s flight in advance.

The 3DR Iris+ takes autonomy further, claiming that ‘if you can draw it, the IRIS+ can fly it’ – draw a flight path using the DroidPlanner 2 app for any Android phone or tablet, and the IRIS+ will follow the course you’ve set. You can also designate a Region of Interest waypoint so that the IRIS+ will keep your GoPro pointed to the same location during the flight.

Size & Stability

Some drone designs prioritise a stable, steady flight, robust endurance and the capability of a heavy payload for carrying expensive cameras or lighting. The SteadiDrone VADER, for example, is based on an ‘open’ platform which is not payload, camera, sensor or even flight controller specific, and folds down into a size that belies its impressive lifting potential. On the other side of the spectrum, drones like the tiny Nixie, essentially a bracelet that can fly and take photographs, make smallness and lightness into a selling point. Other drones seem to show the ability to survive crashes and knocks with great ease; the Lily drone even appears to be waterproof.

Images are of the Nixie.


The Gimball touts itself as the first collision-tolerant flying robot capable of remaining stable after collisions and is the first winner of the UAE’s Drones for Good $1m prize. The patented rotating protective frame and flight control algorithms of the Gimball were inspired by the behavior of insects, like flies, which easily recover after encountering an obstacle by bouncing and continuing flying undisturbed.

Follow Me Technology

Follow Me is an advanced in-flight feature on several new models that allows the drone to track you with the camera as you move. The IRIS+, for example, includes 3DR’s 3PV Follow Me technology, allowing you to tether your IRIS+ to any Android GPS enabled device. With Follow Me technology, the drone becomes a hands-free aerial camera crew, or a dancer/performer that can follow and record the action on stage.

An interesting take on Follow Me technology is the Fotokite, which aims to be the easiest and quickest to use: the little drone, tethered to the user, flies out to the end of its tether to snap a picture. The literal tethering of drone to operator makes this a fully transparent system, as well – you know exactly who is piloting the drone – an ‘accountability’ feature touted by its developers. If the tether can also become a power cable, you can benefit from much longer flight times too.

See all these systems in action on our Drone Innovation YouTube Playlist; or see the section on choosing drones in the CREATIVE PRODUCTION area.

Next page in toolkit: Project Daedalus: prototyping drone labs