What Are Fixed-Wing Drones/UAVs? Everything You Need To Know

The fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) design is one of the most popular and used drone designs today alongside rotary-wing UAVs.

What are fixed-wing drones/UAVs?

Fixed-wing drones/UAVs are unmanned aircraft that use the reaction of air flowing against their lifting surfaces (wings, fuselage etc.) to generate lift which is possible due to the aircraft’s airspeed, shape, and span of its wings. There are many types of fixed-wing UAVs such as unmanned gliders, seaplanes, conventional wing, and flying wing drones among others.

In this article we’re going to explain how fixed-wing UAVs work, their types, the differences between fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAVs, their applications, the main parts/components that make them up, their advantages and disadvantages, the propulsion methods they use and some real examples of UAVs using this design.

How Do Fixed-Wing UAVs Work?

Fixed-wing drones/UAVs are unmanned robotic aircraft that have the ability to generate lift through the use of their lifting surfaces, and powerplant among other devices such as propellers for propulsion.

Check out our post where we explain whether a drone is a robot, what a drone and a robot actually are, some types of robots, the difference between the two, and some examples of each:

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Many fixed-wing drones can also glide for certain lengths of time. Some are built to glide for long periods of time using rising air to stay aloft (unmanned gliders).

A wing is a type of fin that in this case acts as an airfoil. The wing/airfoil is sized and shaped in a way that captures the flow of air as the aircraft’s airspeed increases which thus produces lift.

Air flows faster on the curved top side of the wing than on the flatter underside due to its shape. This causes less air pressure to accumulate on the top of the wing creating a suction that lifts the wing up enabling both unmanned fixed-wing and rotary-wing drones to fly.

The aircraft only needs to change its angle of attack to a steeper pitch (move the nose of the aircraft up) to increase the speed the lift is gained using ailerons, elevators and a rudder which control the UAV’s roll, pitch and yaw.

A rotary-wing UAV works using the same principle. The primary difference is the fact that rotary-wing drones generate lift using generally much smaller wings (often called propellers/rotors/blades) that rotate around a single point at high speeds.

Take note that wings are also used in other unmanned vehicles such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

Some fixed-wing aircraft have a fuselage that acts as an airfoil, some use different wings with various shapes. sizes and numbers of blades, and some do not have a fuselage instead incorporating a large wing that makes up the entire drone (more on this below).

These drones produce thrust through the use of powerplants such as engines, batteries, fuel cells, solar cells among others.

They also incorporate other devices such as propellers that are powered by electric engines (motors).

We highly recommend you check out our full detailed 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.

Related Post: Drone Propellers Explained: Detailed Beginner’s Guide To Drone Anatomy

How do fixed-wing UAVs takeoff?

There are several methods typically used that enable these aircraft to takeoff. These include those that are hand-launched, launched via a catapult launcher, takeoff using a runway, and those that are launched from another aircraft.

Hand-launched fixed-wing UAVs are typically very small drones that can easily be carried in one hand. The operator throws the UAV which then sustains flight using its propulsion system.

Fixed-wing UAVs that are launched via a catapult launcher are typically a little larger than hand-launched drones. These UAVs cannot be easily carried by one person if not at all. The launcher catapults the drone into the air where the UAV then sustains flight using its propulsion system.

Fixed-wing UAVs that takeoff using a runway are generally large unmanned aircraft that are capable of taking off using their propulsion system on a straight runway just like conventional manned aircraft.

Fixed-wing UAVs that are launched from another aircraft may be doing so in order to reach a much higher altitude or may be unpowered gliders.

What Are The Types Of Fixed-Wing UAVs?

This section is split up according to both the general types and the designs used in fixed-wing UAVs.

Check out our full post that dives into each type of fixed-wing drone/UAV. For each types, we explain what they are, how they work, their sub-types, what they’re used for, a benefit and drawback, and two examples of each:

Related Post: Types Of Fixed-Wing Drones/UAVs Explained (+Pictures)

General fixed-wing UAV types

Here are 4 general types of fixed-wing UAVs:

  • Rigid fixed-wing UAVs
  • Non-rigid/flexible fixed-wing UAVs
  • Unmanned gliders/sailplanes
  • Unmanned seaplanes

Check out our post which goes into common and uncommon terminology and abbreviations used in the drone industry with individual definitions for each:

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What are rigid fixed-wing UAVs?

Rigid fixed-wing UAVs include all unmanned aircraft with wings that cannot be bent.

Non-rigid/flexible fixed-wing UAVs

Non-rigid/flexible fixed-wing UAVs include all unmanned aircraft with wings that can be easily bent without breaking.

Unmanned gliders/sailplanes

Unmanned gliders/sailplanes are fixed-wing UAVs that use the reaction of rising air flowing against their lifting surfaces to gain lift. The two types of unmanned sailplanes include unpowered gliders and motor gliders (powered). They can either be launched by a catapult launcher or towed by another aircraft (aerotow) to takeoff.

Check out our full post where we explain how unmanned gliders function, their types, applications, advantages/disadvantages and examples of real drone gliders:

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Unmanned seaplanes

Unmanned seaplanes are fixed-wing UAVs that are capable of taking off and landing on the surface of a body of water. The two types of unmanned seaplanes include floatplanes which are equipped with floats at the base of their undercarriage and flying boats which use a watertight hull for buoyancy instead of floats.

Check out our full post where we dive into how unmanned seaplanes work, the different types, applications, parts, advantages/disadvantages, and several examples of real drones:

Related Post: What Are Unmanned Seaplanes? Floating Drones Explained

Fixed-wing UAV designs

Here are the 4 types of fixed-wing UAVs according to design:

  • Conventional wing
  • Flying wing
  • Blended wing-body
  • Lifting body

Conventional wing UAVs

Conventional wing UAVs are unmanned aircraft with a distinct fuselage, wings, and empennage, that use the reaction of air flowing against their wings to generate lift.

Flying wing UAVs

Flying wing UAVs are tail-less unmanned aircraft with no distinct fuselage that use the reaction of air flowing against the body of the drone which is essentially a large wing to generate lift.

Blended wing-body UAVs

Blended wing-body UAVs are unmanned aircraft without a clear dividing line between the distinct wings and fuselage as they’re smoothly blended together. These aircraft can have a tail or be tail-less and this design is used in both aircraft and underwater gliders.

Lifting body UAVs

Lifting body UAVs are unmanned aircraft that do not use conventional wings, instead relying on their fuselage to generate lift. This design can be used in both unmanned aircraft and unmanned spacecraft.

What Are The Differences Between Fixed-Wing And Rotary-Wing UAVs?

There are several differences between fixed-wing and rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These differences span from the shape of the aircraft to its performance.

Here are 6 differences between fixed-wing and rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

Fixed-Wing UAVsRotary-Wing UAVs
The shape of the aircraftThey typically have a combination of horizontal wings connected to a fuselage with an empennage. Some can also only have a fuselage that acts as the lifting surface.They typically do not have fixed wings and the entire aircraft is made up of essentially one large fuselage with either one large rotor at the centre or multiple symmetrical rotors.
The way lift is generatedThey have rigid or flexible fixed wings that enable the aircraft to generate lift. They typically require a powerplant to increase airspeed. They primarily generate horizontal thrust.They can have one or more propeller blades all attached to a centre point that rotates quickly in order to fly. They typically have a small tail rotor used as a counter-torque device. They primarily generate vertical thrust.
The maximum attainable flight timeMost have a gliding capability which drastically increases the vehicle’s maximum flight time. If the power stops, the aircraft may still be capable of staying in the air as it quickly glides down.They rely solely on a powered rotor to stay aloft and therefore use much more fuel and have a much lower flight time in most cases. If the power stops, the aircraft will not be able to stay in the air.
The amount they can carryThey can generally have much higher payloads than rotary-wing drones as they consume much less fuel/power and can therefore last much longer in the air than rotary-wing UAVs.They can’t typically have as high a payload as fixed-wing UAVs as they consume much more fuel/power as their rotors support the full weight of the drone which reduces the overall flight time and payload capacity.
The stability of the vehicleThey are typically much more stable as there are fewer moving parts compared to rotary-wing UAVsThey have more moving parts causing the aircraft to vibrate much more affecting stability.
The space they need to takeoffThey require short or long runways in order to build up enough speed to takeoff. These runways generally take up a lot of space.They require rotors to rotate at a high enough speed/RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) around a fixed axis in order to takeoff vertically. They only need a small area to takeoff.

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

Take note that hybrid fixed-wing/vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAVs are hybrids between fixed-wing and rotary-wing drones. These unmanned aircraft typically takeoff using their vertical propellers and transition into forward horizontal flight using their fixed wings.

There are several types of hybrid fixed-wing/VTOL UAVs such as quadplanes, tiltwing, tail-sitter, and tiltrotor drones.

Check out our detailed post where we dive into what hybrid fixed-wing/VTOL UAVs are, how they work, the different types, applications, parts/components, advantages/disadvantages, and examples:

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What Are Fixed-Wing UAVs Used For?

Here are 6 applications for fixed-wing UAV:

  • ISTAR (Intelligence, Survelliance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance)
  • Extending reach and/or capacity of communication systems (cell towers)
  • Crop monitoring
  • Aerial Mapping and Surveying
  • Delivery of medical supplies
  • Photography/Videography

Check out our full 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

What Parts/Components Make Up Fixed-Wing UAVs?

Each part/component of a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) work to help the aircraft achieve and maintain control, stability, and trim over the aircraft.

There are several different combinations used as each UAV typically requires a tailored ensemble depending on features such as weight, shape, and level of technology.

Here are the 7 main parts/components that make up fixed-wing UAVs:

  • Fuselage
  • Airfoils/Wings
  • Empennage/tail assembly
  • Sensors
  • Payloads
  • Landing gear
  • Powerplants/Propulsion devices

Check out our article where we explain what each part and component of a fixed-wing UAV is, how they work, the 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:

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The fuselage is the primary body section of the UAV. It usually contains cargo or passengers.

Airfoils/wings are a type of fin that are sized and shaped in a way that captures the flow of air as the aircraft’s airspeed increases which thus produces lift.

The wingspan and wing surface area will both affect the amount of lift that is generated.

Fixed-wing UAV wings typically have several wing devices such as ailerons (control the aircraft’s roll; usually located near the tips of the wings) and strakes (aerodynamic surface that either controls airflow or aids in stabilising the drone).

Winglets/wingtip devices are used to improve the efficiency of fixed-wing UAVs by reducing drag. These devices are sometimes used on UAVs but are most commonly found on manned aircraft.

The empennage/tail assembly is the entire tail configuration which includes a fin (vertical stabiliser) and rudder which acts vertically and a horizontal tailplane/stabiliser and elevator which act horizontally.

Common fixed-wing UAV sensors include Real-Time Kinematic (RTK), Post-Processed Kinematic (PPK), Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs), EO/IR (Electro-Optical/Infrared), among many others.

Common fixed-wing UAV payloads include cameras (considered sensors), gimbals, freight (mail parcels, medicines etc), and weapons (bombs, missiles and loitering munition).

If you’d like to find out 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, check out our post on this topic below:

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Fixed-wing UAV landing gear is part of the undercarriage of the aircraft which enables the drone to both takeoff and land from various surfaces. It supports and enables the aircraft to move around when it is grounded.

The types include wheels (for takeoff/landing on the ground), floats (for takeoff/landing on water), and skis (for takeoff/landing on snow or ice).

Common powerplants/propulsion devices used in fixed-wing UAVs include things such as engines, batteries, and propellers (more on this below).

What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Fixed-Wing UAVs?

The fixed-wing design is one of the oldest used and most popular aircraft designs for good reason. The advantages of this design outdo the disadvantages.

We’ve split up the advantages and disadvantages into their own separate sections.

Check out our post that explains all fixed-wing UAV advantages and disadvantages:

Related Post: 11 Fixed-Wing Drone/UAV Advantages+Disadvantages Explained

Advantages of fixed-wing UAVs

Here are 7 advantages of fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

  • Most have a gliding capability that enables them to fly for much longer
  • They typically consume less fuel compared to other types of unmanned aircraft
  • They’re often very stable
  • They can generally fly much faster than other unmanned aircraft
  • They are capable of reaching high altitudes due to their long flight times and high speeds
  • They’re safer because of the gliding capability. If the powerplant fails, then it still has a chance at a relatively safe landing
  • They can typically carry heavy payloads

Disadvantages of fixed-wing UAVs

Here are 4 disadvantages of fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

  • They typically have large wingspans (the tip of one wing to the opposing wingtip)
  • They can’t takeoff and land in narrow spaces like rotorcraft because they require a lot of airspeed to generate lift to takeoff and a lot of time to reduce their airspeed for landing
  • Specific fixed-wing types are known to be unstable and difficult to control such as flying wing UAVs
  • They can’t hover in place

Fixed-Wing UAV Powerplants/Propulsion Devices

There are several powerplants/propulsion devices used in fixed-wing UAVs in order for them to function. These devices are used to generate horizontal thrust for the drone to generate lift.

Here are 5 powerplants/propulsion devices used to power fixed-wing UAVs:

  • Engines
  • Batteries
  • Fuel Cells (FCs)
  • Solar Cells
  • Propellers

Check out our full post where we dive into several powerplants and propulsion devices 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.

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Take note that engines include motors (electrical engines).

What Are Some Examples Of Fixed-Wing UAVs?

Here are 11 examples of fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

Zephyr 8Airbus+QinetiqConventional WingPhotovoltaic (PV) solar cells+Amprius li-ion batteries
RQ-170 SentinelLockheed MartinFlying WingGeneral Electric TF34 or Garrett TFE731 turbofan engines
FirebirdNorthrop GrummanConventional Wing400 HP Lycoming engine
X-45ABoeingBlended Wing-BodyHoneywell F124-GA-100 turbofan
X-43A/Hyper-XNASALifting BodyHydrocarbon fuel Scramjet engine
AquilaAirtronicsUnmanned Glider/SailplaneN/A
X-51 WaveriderBoeingLifting BodyMGM-140 ATACMS solid rocket booster+Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 Scramjet engine
Sea ScoutVigor Industrial/Previously Oregon Iron Works (OIW)Flying BoatAR74-1439 (38hp) Piston engine
Model VEclipsonUnmanned Motor Glider/Sailplane11.1V 2,000mAh Li-Po 3S
GULL 24Warrior (Aero-Marine)Flying Boat?
S-70 Okhotnik-BSukhoiFlying WingSaturn AL-31F/AL-41F (123–147kN)

N/A: Not Applicable

If you’d like to discover who the best drone companies are in the world for the consumer, commercial and military drone markets and some fun facts about them, we have a full post on this topic below:

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Fixed-wing drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are incredible vehicles that are popular for good reason. We hope that you’ve learned more about fixed-wing drones and their importance in the unmanned robot industry.

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