Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are some of the most popular types of drones used today. Rotary-wing drones/UAVs which includes single rotor and multi-rotor drones are also very popular if not more popular in the consumer market specifically.
However, in this post, we will be focusing on the benefits and drawbacks of fixed-wing UAVs over other types of UAVs.
Take note that this post will not be including hybrid VTOL UAVs (tiltwing, tiltrotor, quadplane, tail-sitter drones) as they are in a category of their own.
- 6 Fixed-Wing Drone/Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Advantages
- Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally have a high payload capacity?
- Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally have long flight times?
- Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs typically stable?
- How can fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally reach high airspeeds?
- Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs typically have high coverage/ranges?
- How can fixed-wing drones/UAVs partially or completely glide for extended periods of time?
- 5 Fixed-Wing Drone/Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Disadvantages
- Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs difficult to fly/operate?
- Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally large?
- Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs not as maneuverable as other types of UAVs?
- Fixed-wing drones/UAVs can only fly horizontally lacking the ability to fly vertically
- Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs typically require long stretches of land to takeoff and land?
6 Fixed-Wing Drone/Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Advantages
The popularity of fixed-wing drones/UAVs is primarily attributed to how well they function and how fun they are to fly. These types of aircraft, if designed properly, can achieve some incredible feats.
Here are 6 fixed-wing drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) advantages:
- They generally have a high payload capacity
- They generally have long flight times
- They’re typically quite stable
- They can generally reach high airspeeds
- They typically have a high coverage/range
- They can partially or completely glide for extended periods of time
Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally have a high payload capacity?
A fixed-wing drone’s/UAV’s payload capacity refers to the amount of additional weight it can carry other than its base weight.
Check out our full post that dives further into how fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) work, the differences between fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAVs, fixed-wing drone applications, some parts/components that make them up, powerplants they use and some real examples of fixed-wing UAVs:
The payload includes all sorts of cargo such as baggage, passengers and additional equipment not required for the aircraft to function and excludes things like fuel or other power sources needed by the drone to function.
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) generally have a high payload capacity as they are very efficient compared to other drones. The additional weight added to the drone will only reduce an acceptable amount of the UAV’s flight time, control, and speed to a certain extent.
A rotary-wing UAV for example will not be able to be as flexible as they are far less efficient and have far less flight time on average. Their main rotors are constantly being powered just to keep the aircraft flying while at the same time experiencing a lot more drag and consuming a lot more fuel.
This additional payload capacity can be very beneficial if not essential for certain industries such as the agricultural industry where various payloads are required for mapping and monitoring such as electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) cameras attached to gimbals.
Check out our post where we dive into what a drone gimbal is, what kinds of drone gimbals are available, whether drones need gimbals, how a drone gimbal works, how to choose the right gimbal, how much they cost and much more:
The MQ-25 Stingray made by Boeing which is an aerial refuelling drone and has a payload capacity of 13,800kg (30,424lb) and the QF-16 made by Boeing/U.S. Air Force (USAF) which is an aerial target and decoy drone and has a payload capacity of 10,630kg (23,435lb) are two examples of fixed-wing UAVs with large payload capacities.
Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally have long flight times?
A fixed-wing drone’s/UAV’s flight time refers to the total length of time a UAV can fly on one full tank/charge until it runs out.
Fixed-wing drones can be powered using various methods. These include UAVs powered by batteries, engines, fuel cells, solar energy etc.
Check out our full post where we dive into several power sources currently used in drones. For each power source, we expand on how they work, the different types, the advantages, disadvantages, and real-world examples of drones that use it.
Related Post: How Are Drones Powered? 6 Drone Energy Sources Explained
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) generally have long flight times as they’re very efficient in the way they consume fuel and generate lift. These drone’s parts are designed in a way that generates as much thrust and lift as possible while reducing drag.
Having more effective and efficient aerodynamic surfaces (wings, fuselages, empennage etc) reduces the amount of stress put on the propulsion system (engines, propellers etc) and the work it has to do enabling powerplants to burn less fuel and fly for longer periods.
Long flight times are essential for most industries planning to adopt UAVs in their daily operations. An increased flight time means the drone needs to land less frequently to refuel/recharge or replace the batteries which can save a lot of time in the long run.
The Zephyr 8/S made by Airbus which is a solar powered UAV (with batteries) and has a total flight time of 25days 23h 57min and the Vanilla (VA001) made by Vanilla Unmanned which is powered by a piston engine and has a total flight time of 240h (10 days) are two examples of fixed-wing drones with very long flight times.
Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs typically stable?
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can typically handle harsh weather such as fog, heavy rain, or strong winds in flight far better than other types of drones as they are not only strong and durable but also fly faster and at higher altitudes counteracting some of the negative effects in many cases.
For those fixed-wing drones that use propellers, they typically have several small props which are shaped and angled in a way that best propels the vehicle and can also be designed to generate fewer vibrations compared to a large rotary-wing main rotor for example.
Check out our full post on drone propellers including the different types, how they work, their different sizes and pitch, their materials, how to choose them and much more.
Stability is required for any application the drone will be used for as an unstable UAV will make the drone harder to operate making it potentially dangerous not only for the equipment but also for those around the drone.
Various aerodynamic devices such as vertical stabilisers/tail fins which typically form part of the empennage and strakes attached to the fuselage can contribute to an increase in both control and stability.
Check out our post on several fixed-wing UAV applications where we explain what each is, how fixed-wing drones are used in them, how they’re beneficial typically over manned aircraft, and some real examples/concepts if there are any:
Related Post: 12 Awesome Fixed-Wing Drone/UAV Applications Explained
How can fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally reach high airspeeds?
The airspeed of an aircraft refers to the speed it can fly at while in the air.
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can generally reach high airspeeds as their fuselage, wings, and empennage (if there is one) are designed in a way that maximises aerodynamic efficiency and they can typically fly at altitudes where the air is less dense allowing them to sustain far less air resistance (drag) and increased lift and forward momentum generated.
This is the primary limitation for other types of drones such as rotary-wing UAVs as they utilise one large rotor or multiple smaller rotors which generate a large amount of drag limiting its maximum speed.
Some types of fixed-wing UAVs are built to fly much faster. These include flying wing, blended wing-body, and especially lifting body drones.
Check out our full post that dives into each type of fixed-wing drone/UAV. For each type we explain what they are, how they work, their sub-types, what each is used for, a benefit and drawback, and two examples of each:
Related Post: Types Of Fixed-Wing Drones/UAVs Explained (+Pictures)
There are many different types of wing configurations used on fixed-wing aircraft, but only some are designed for high-speed flight. These include the swept wing configuration including the delta wing which are best suited for high speed subsonic, transonic, and supersonic flight.
Lifting body UAVs (which have no wings, instead generating lift with their fuselage) are best suited for hypersonic flight.
The X-43A/Hyper-X made by NASA which is a lifting body fixed-wing UAV and can reach a top speed of 11,265km/h (7,000mph)/Mach 9.8 and the D-21 made by Lockheed Martin which is a fixed-wing delta UAV and can reach a top speed of 3,600km/h (2,300mph)/Mach 3.35 are two examples of fixed-wing UAVs than can fly very fast.
Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs typically have high coverage/ranges?
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) typically have high coverage/ranges as they are capable of efficiently generating lift and sustaining flight for long periods of time using wings shaped like airfoils along with its other parts either contributing to generating lift or built in a way that reduces drag.
This is also why they can reach high altitudes. They can fly for long enough, and fast enough to reach such altitudes and in extreme cases, they can stay aloft even in thinner air found at very high altitudes such as the stratosphere. This also depends on the powerplant used.
This is due to the combination of some of the things we’ve talked about above such as the shape and positioning of the UAV’s parts, the speed, and the stability of the aircraft.
The communications system (transmitter & receiver) will also play a large part in this equation. However, we will assume that this part has an unlimited range.
Check out our article where we explain what each part and component of a fixed-wing UAV is, how they work, different sub-types of each component (if any), and some real examples of either the part/component itself or UAVs that have some of these parts:
Related Post: Main Fixed-Wing Drone/UAV Parts & Components Explained
Generally, the most efficient UAVs are going to have a long wingspan with wings that may be thin.
The Vanilla (VA001) made by Vanilla Unmanned which is a fixed-wing UAV powered by a piston engine and has a range of 34,262km (21,289mi) and the ORION made by Aurora Flight Sciences (Boeing) which is a fixed-wing UAV powered by a heavy-fuel engine and has a range of 24,140km (15,000mi) are two examples of UAVs with very long ranges.
How can fixed-wing drones/UAVs partially or completely glide for extended periods of time?
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can partially or completely glide (powered/unpowered) for extended periods of time as they can efficiently generate lift using a long, thin, and lightweight main plane/airfoil, fuselage, and other parts while experiencing low drag.
The longer and thinner the wing/airfoil, the less drag it produces while reaching more airflow in flight thus generating more lift. The fuselage also typically needs to be thin to reduce drag and increase lift. Each of these components needs to be very lightweight.
Some fixed-wing robots are made to function without an engine and glide for extended periods of time. These are called unmanned gliders/sailplanes.
Check out our full post where we explain how unmanned gliders function, their types, applications, advantages/disadvantages and examples of real drone gliders:
Related Post: What Are Unmanned Gliders? Drone Sailplanes Explained
Take note that there are also unmanned motor gliders where the motor is only used if necessary (for emergency or takeoff).
The Aquila made by Airtronics which is a fixed-wing unmanned glider and the Model V made by Eclipson which is a fixed-wing unmanned motor glider are two examples of unmanned gliders and motor gliders.
5 Fixed-Wing Drone/Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Disadvantages
Like any type of aircraft, the fixed-wing design also has its drawbacks.
Here are 5 fixed-wing drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) disadvantages:
- They’re difficult to fly/operate
- They’re generally large, primarily due to their wingspans
- They’re not as maneuverable as other types of UAVs
- They can only fly horizontally lacking the ability to hover in place
- They typically require a long stretch of land to takeoff and land
Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs difficult to fly/operate?
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are difficult to fly/operate as the control surfaces can be very sensitive, especially for smaller UAVs that have smaller aerodynamic surfaces making yaw, pitch, and roll controls much more challenging. The speed they can travel at can also be intimidating making reaction time key during flight.
The takeoff and landing process can further add to the operational challenges associated with fixed-wing UAVs.
Check out our post which goes into common and uncommon terminology and abbreviations used in the drone industry with individual definitions for each:
This is one of the primary deterrents for beginner drone enthusiasts and is a big reason why the rotary-wing design has become so popular in the consumer market as they are usually much simpler to fly.
Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs generally large?
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are generally large due to their wingspans which need to be large enough to capture enough airflow and support the drone in flight. The fuselage can also be large if it is intended to be used to carry large payloads.
For consumers, this can be a big issue, but for large organisations and institutions (including the military), this will not be as much a problem as they will already have systems in place for these operations.
This can also make the drone more dangerous if it crashes into you or someone’s property as the larger the UAV gets, the heavier it usually gets.
Rotary-wing UAVs typically do not get as large as fixed-wing UAVs. This is primarily because of the fixed-wing’s wingspan which makes the drone seem much larger, even if the fuselage is very small.
Check out our full post on what rotary-wing drones/UAVs are where we dive into how they work, their types, applications, parts/components, advantages/disadvantages, common powerplants and examples:
Related Post: What Are Rotary-Wing UAVs? Unmanned Rotorcraft Explained
The Global Observer made by AeroVironment which is a fixed-wing UAV with a 2100*5300cm (826.8*2086.6in – length*wingspan) and the RQ-4B Global Hawk made by Northrop Grumman which is a fixed-wing UAV with a 1450*3990*470cm (47.7*130.9*15.3ft – length*wingspan*height) are two examples of large fixed-wing UAVs.
Why are fixed-wing drones/UAVs not as maneuverable as other types of UAVs?
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not as maneuverable as other types of UAVs as they can only fly forward (horizontally), both straight or at a specific pitch, and cannot fly below certain speeds which increases the radius and distance it takes for them to change direction.
The maneuverability of a fixed-wing UAV can be improved with the adoption of additional wings stacked atop each other.
The types of fixed-wing UAVs according to the number of wings include biplanes (2 wing planes), triplanes (3 wing planes), quadruplanes (4 wing planes), and multiplanes (5 or more wing planes).
The more wings added to the drone, the more the maneuverability of the aircraft improves at the expense of speed. However, there is always a limit as with most things.
These wings require struts and/or wires in order to support the wings under tension and compression. Struts and wires (especially when used together) along with extra wings increase the weight of the UAV while at the same time increasing the drag which reduces flight time and decreases speed.
Fixed-wing drones/UAVs can only fly horizontally lacking the ability to fly vertically
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can only fly horizontally as they have to maintain a certain speed in order to stay in the air. This is excluding hybrid VTOL UAVs of course.
Fixed-wing UAVs use a flight mode called conventional/horizontal takeoff and landing (C/HTOL) while rotary-wing and hybrid VTOL UAVs can use vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL).
Check out our detailed post where we dive into how VTOL drones work, the types of VTOL drones according to flight modes, designs, and propulsion methods, their costs, how much they weigh, their payload capacities, use cases, examples, and more:
This is one of the primary advantages that other types of UAVs such as rotary-wing and hybrid VTOL drones have over fixed-wing UAVs. They are capable of hovering in place and quickly changing direction.
This limits the UAV’s capabilities as it will not be a viable solution for applications where the drone is required to stay in a stationary position, fly at very low speeds, and/or takeoff and land in narrow spaces.
Why do fixed-wing drones/UAVs typically require long stretches of land to takeoff and land?
Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) require long stretches of land for takeoff and landing as they need speed to push enough air into the wings for takeoff and they need a long enough stretch of land to slow down when in contact with the ground during landing.
Typically, the larger and heavier the UAV, the longer it will take to takeoff and land.
Fixed-wing UAVs come in various sizes and can takeoff using several methods primarily depending on their size.
These methods of takeoff include using a long runway (generally for larger drones), using a catapult launcher, and hand-launched/thrown (if it’s small and light enough to do so).
Some medium-sized UAVs are capable of taking off from and landing on aircraft carriers that have short runways. Aircraft that are capable of doing so are generally considered to be short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft.
The X-47B made by Northrop Grumman is a tailless blended wing-body and can takeoff and land from an aircraft carrier and can therefore be considered a STOL drone.
It may seem that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages but that is not entirely true. Some of these drawbacks may be far more serious depending on things such as how the drone will be used and the operator’s skill level.
Fixed-wing UAVs are still incredible tools that can be used for a vast amount of things. We hope that you’ve learned something new or that we’ve convinced you of the impressiveness that is the fixed-wing drone.