A Fixed-wing UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), otherwise referred to as a fixed wing UAS, Fixed wing RPAS or Fixed wing drone, is an aircraft that operates without a human pilot onboard. Fixed wing UAVs are controlled either remotely by a human operator or autonomously via onboard computers.
Fixed-wing UAVs fly by utilising the lift generated by the aircraft’s forward motion and the shape of its wings. Fixed-wing UAVs can be self-propelled, pure gliders (vehicles whose free flight does not rely on a method of propulsion) or a mixture of the two.
Self-propelled fixed-wing UAVs typically rely on forward thrust generated by a propeller turned by an internal combustion engine or electric motor, and gliders are launched either by a winch launcher or by being towed by another aircraft. In both cases, the ailerons, elevator and rudder control the roll, pitch and yaw of the drone.
In addition to batteries and conventional petrol or diesel engines, powered fixed-wing UAVs can operate on other energy sources such as solar power and wireless power delivery using lasers.
Smaller fixed-wing UAVs (sUAS) can be hand-launched by the operator simply throwing them into the air. Larger and heavier drones require a more complex method of getting airborne, such as a catapult or a runway, or being launched from a larger aircraft.
Fixed-wing UAVs can usually carry heavier payloads for longer distances and flight times than VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) UAVs, while using less power. This makes them well-suited for long distance missions, such as mapping, surveillance and defense, where long endurance can be an important factor. They may also be better equipped to survive technical failure in the air, as many designs incorporate natural gliding capabilities in the event of loss of propulsion.
Fixed-wing UAVs may not be suitable for fixed inspection applications where an aircraft may be required to hold a very precise position in order to capture still images such as the serial number of a pylon or minute damage to structures.
A hybrid VTOL fixed wing UAV typically features rotary propellers integrated into the aircraft’s wings, allowing for vertical take-off and landing of the aircraft. This capability crucially removes the requirement for a take-off and landing strip and extends the application and mission flexibility of the aircraft.