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What Is a Drone, Anyway?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Launching a Puma drone

Soldier launching a Puma drone

At a time when drone aircraft have become a daily feature of the news and are about to proliferate in U.S. airspace, it’s a good idea to take a step back and examine a very basic and very important question: What, exactly, is a drone?

The answer turns out to be more complex than might be expected. Strictly speaking, a drone is an unmanned aircraft that can fly autonomously—that is, without a human in control. But even that seemingly simple definition quickly runs up against the nuances of how contemporary unmanned aircraft are flown.

For example, consider an aircraft that is under the control of a remote pilot for most but not all of a mission. If the pilot switches to a GPS-guided autopilot mode for a few minutes, does the aircraft become a “drone” for that subset of its flight, and then lose that designation once the autopilot is switched off? Or does the presence of the GPS autopilot, regardless of how much it is actually used, make it a drone?

(Even when autonomous flight does occur, the human element is still very much present but simply shifted in time. Designing systems and methods to successfully allow a computer to control an aircraft is a high art in and of itself. Autonomous flight is made possible by the tremendous amount of human ingenuity invested well in advance of an actual flight.)

Many people (the author included) have used “drone” to describe any aircraft without an on-board pilot. But that is an oversimplification that masks the incredible range in shapes, sizes and capabilities that characterize today’s unmanned aircraft. And it can fail to fully recognize the high levels of skill involved in piloting—whether or not the pilot is actually in the plane.

As the following questions and answers show, some types of unmanned aircraft clearly are not drones. Others clearly are. And in some cases, the distinction is a matter of perspective.

Are traditional model airplanes “drones”?

In a word, no. Here’s why:

Model airplanes have been around for well over a hundred years and actually predate manned flight. Models have been used for decades to test aircraft design theories and to validate full-scale performance. Some models are small-scale replicas of real airplanes; others are original designs intended for sport or competitive activities. In many cases, they are built to stunningly precise levels of detail. Most, though not all, model airplanes today are flown by radio remote control.

Model aircraft are flown by thousands of enthusiasts with a common interest in aviation and a love for watching their aircraft fly and perform. For this reason, models are largely flown within visual line of sight and in the presence of an operator who watches and maintains control of the airplane during flight. That alone is enough to place model airplanes cleanly outside the boundaries of “drone.”

Are Predators, Global Hawks and other military unmanned aircraft “drones”?

Predators and Global Hawks are two of the many types of unmanned aircraft that have been used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are piloted by extremely skilled aviators who, thanks to a combination of technology advances, no longer need to be physically sitting in the airplane. However, that doesn’t make them any less skilled than traditional in-the-cockpit pilots.

Sean McEntee, a lifelong model airplane hobbyist and current U.S. military UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) pilot who has flown surveillance missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, brings a unique perspective to the challenges of remote piloting. He explains that flying a UAV involves far more than “sitting in a box and watching it fly around.” Many UAVs, he says, are flown “stick and rudder,” with controls comparable to those found in the cockpit of a traditional airplane. U.S. military UAV pilots often go through a rigorous screening process followed by a year or more of intensive training.

Largely for these reasons, many unmanned aircraft pilots take a very dim view of the term drone, as it fails to recognize the high levels of skill involved in real-world flight operations. They often prefer designations such as UAV or RPA (“remotely piloted aircraft”).

What is a “first-person view” unmanned aircraft? Is it a drone?

A first-person view (FPV) aircraft has a front-facing video camera and transmits real-time video to an operator on the ground. The operator looks at the image on a computer screen, sees the view as if he or she were sitting in the cockpit, and flies the plane accordingly.

While “UAV” is a general term for (non model aircraft) unmanned aircraft, FPV refers to the subset of such aircraft that are flown by a remote pilot using the image transmitted from an on-board camera. Unmanned aircraft guided exclusively by GPS or on-board computer analysis of imagery are UAVs, but they aren’t first-person view UAVs.

Until now, most FPV aircraft have been operated by the military, using technologies that make it possible to fly the aircraft beyond the line of sight of the pilot. However, use of FPV aircraft in non-military settings is certain to increase with the recent enactment of a new U.S. aviation law that will open U.S. airspace to many types of unmanned aircraft in the coming years. FPV aircraft are likely to be subject to very conservative FAA rules regarding domestic non-line-of-sight operation to minimize potential safety concerns. For example, if the communication link between the pilot and the aircraft fails, then there are obvious challenges involved in bringing the aircraft back to the ground without endangering other aircraft or people on the ground.

Is an FPV aircraft a drone? Under the strictest definition of drone, it isn’t, since it is flown under the control of a human operator. However, when flown beyond the line of sight, an FPV aircraft would be characterized by many people as a drone, despite the significant skill that might be involved in flying it. This is because the definition of drone can be difficult or impossible for an observer to apply. After all, how can someone who sees an unmanned aircraft maneuvering without any evidence of a nearby pilot know whether it is autonomous or remotely piloted? From the observer’s standpoint, it’s not unreasonable to consider it a drone.

What about an unmanned aircraft that navigates itself by GPS?

An unmanned aircraft that flies autonomously, using GPS to navigate a complex flight path without human control, falls squarely within the definition of drone.

Are hobbyist “drones” really drones?

Usually, yes. Many drone hobbyists have an extremely high level of expertise regarding systems for autonomous flight. They use this expertise to merge robotics, sensors, and airframe design in an amazing variety of innovative ways. In addition, they are often very careful in their use of terminology. If a serious hobbyist calls his or her platform a “drone,” that is almost certainly an accurate designation.


So where does all of this leave things? To start, it’s important to recognize the enormous amount of research and innovation that is occurring in the commercial world, the military, and the hobbyist community with respect to autonomous flight. However, when we read about U.S. military “drones” we should also keep in mind that skilled aviators continue to be a critical part of military aviation, even if they happen not to be on the plane.

Finally, despite all these changes in the aviation world, it’s important not to lose sight of what hasn’t changed at all: Aircraft fly thanks to a mix of physics and human ingenuity. That has been true since the dawn of powered flight, and remains no less true today.

Image courtesy AeroVironment, Inc.

John Villasenor About the Author: John Villasenor is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. dbtinc 3:56 pm 04/12/2012

    A drone? Isn’t that a Tea Partier?

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  2. 2. Dredd 6:37 pm 04/12/2012

    The same discussion has taken place with respect to whether prions, phages, and viruses are drones or organic life.

    The dictionary says a drone is “a pilotless radio-controlled aircraft”, but don’t let semantics get in the way.

    Link to this
  3. 3. sUASNews 6:40 am 04/13/2012

    Wow Scientific American keyword stuffing articles who would have thought.

    I can’t begin to explain just how wrong these definitions are.

    An Unmanned Aircraft System is anything that can be controlled in three axis and does not have a pilot onboard.

    Model aircraft are UAS, but enjoy exemptions agreed with the AMA.

    UAS pilots will only refer to them as such, or RPAS the top of the list ICAO term for the genre.

    John I think you should build and fly your own systems and then you would be more qualified to have an opinion. It sounds rather harsh that, but the reality is America is not number one in autonomous flight and its falling behind daily.

    UAS will be used for humanitarian tasks and simple domestic chores in the not too distant future.

    They are no more of an issue than the camera in a cell phone hoisted up on a stick.

    I don’t think the police should be given carte blanch to do whatever they like with whatever technology but the hype around this subject is just silly.

    Easy web eyes

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  4. 4. villasenor 12:20 pm 04/13/2012

    I am the author of this post and wanted to respond to the comment from sUASNews. First, thanks sUASNews for your comment. With a rapidly advancing technology such as this it’s common for terms to remain in flux.

    In some sense, it’s possible to take a position that anything that’s unmanned and flies is a UAV. That could even include, for example, a child’s rubber band-powered toy plane.

    However, in this post I was referring to the “general” use of the term UAV these days, which typically refers to platforms with a significant degree of sophisticated onboard processing. This is not what you find in traditional model airplanes.

    For example, the annual Teal Group UAV report is widely regarded as the authoritative industry report on world UAV activity. As can be seen from the list of “UAV companies” on page 11 of the 2011 report, this does not address model airplane companies.

    The first 13 pages of the 2011 report can be downloaded for free from the Teal Group by doing a google search for

    teal group 2011 uav forecast

    Also, over at DIY Drones, they have the following UAV definition:

    “An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV, colloquially known as a “drone”) is basically an aerial robot. As we define it, it is capable of both remotely controlled flight (like a regular RC aircraft) and fully-autonomous flight, controlled by sensors, GPS, and onboard computers performing the functions of an autopilot. ”

    This definition also excludes model aircraft, and in that respect is consistent with my own use of “UAV.” However, the DIY Drones definition even goes farther, as it appears to exclude non-autonomous FPV platforms, which I personally think *are* reasonably considered to be UAVs.

    This doesn’t mean the DIY Drones people don’t know what they are talking about; on the contrary; that community includes the world’s top drone hobbyists. It just means that in a rapidly evolving technology area, reasonable people can have different views and interpretations of the scope of some terms.

    Regarding the comment that privacy concerns posed by UAS are “no more of an issue than the camera in a cell phone hoisted up on a stick”, that is a position that is at odds with the view held by most people in the civil liberties community. There are many vantage points available to a UAS that are not available to a cell phone on a stick.

    There are so many privacy issues these days, and I would agree that it would be improper to suggest that UAS-related privacy concerns are more important than all the others. But, to deny that UAS will present
    new civil liberties challenges at all also isn’t a position I’d agree with.

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  5. 5. harscience 10:04 pm 03/4/2013


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  6. 6. harscience 10:20 pm 03/4/2013

    HI, an admirable effort, but “they are piloted by extremely
    skilled aviators” is historically inaccurate as an “aviator”
    is the pilot of a manned aircraft as is also the earlier
    now out of fashion
    aviatrix for the female pilot of a manned aircraft, I am a skilled flier of remote controlled
    aircraft and a member of the academy of aeronautics but
    certainly don’t qualify to be called an “aviator”.

    Link to this
  7. 7. MtneerInTN 11:38 am 04/23/2013

    This article ignores the historic first use of the term drone was for radio controlled flying targets, they were NOT autonomous.

    Link to this
  8. 8. DroneZon 3:16 pm 10/22/2014

    Nice article and thanks for clarifying the different types of UAVs and drones. As you say, model airplanes have been around a long time. I love these new quadcopters and the videos we are seeing now are tremendous. There is many areas such as travel, seach and rescue that drones will be of great benefit.

    Link to this
  9. 9. dukeofhesse 1:32 pm 01/6/2015

    Talk about much ado about nothing! Who cares? Or as Hillary would say; what difference, at this point does it make?

    Throughout YouTube video comments are dozens of put-out types who recoil at the thought of calling a quadcopter a drone. I call it a drone – one syllable – easy and whether someone is unhappy with that description or not, I’ll call it anything I want.

    Suggest you go fly your drone/UAV/quadcopter/UAS, refer to it however you want and don’t waste brain cells, time and space pondering this silly issue. I just wasted time talking about wasting time. There I did it again.

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  10. 10. andipras 2:29 am 01/15/2015

    operate drones that require special expertise may already be familiar with aeromodelling when it might be faster to operate. it is just like the penyebab wanita frigid.

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  11. 11. lmcwilli 7:04 pm 01/31/2015

    This evening, my wife asked me “What is a drone”. Your article was good food for thought. First of all, I am an experienced remote control (RC) helicopter pilot and also launch programmed, autonomous aircraft.

    Following is the use of terms that I think contains the least ambiguity:

    Drone = programmed, autonomous vehicle (aircraft in this context). Not under pilot control—except for exception handling. Kind of like a guided missile but with the capability to be programmed for more complex tasks. Really, a flying, programmed, robotic system.

    RPA = Remotely Piloted Aircraft. The pilot is “virtually” inside the aircraft as enabled by various on-board sensors (incl. a camera). This would include what hobbyists call FPV (First Person View) piloting.

    RC = Remotely Controlled aircraft. The pilot’s control of the aircraft is based upon his external line-of-site view.

    My above use of the word “drone” fits with original of the word: used to describe the instinctual (genetically programmed) behavior of insects in a hive.

    Link to this

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