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What is the difference between a drone and a UAV and why does it make a difference? And why do I hate the "D" word?

Posted by Blair Nichols in UAV

With the rise in popularity of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) both in the workplace and in the hobby market, the term ‘drone’ is often misused. The general public and the media tend to use the term drone to describe most types of unmanned flying vehicle, but this is not always correct. I think the overuse of the word may be damaging to the industry, as the term drone may have gained a negative connotation. This prejudice can impact decisions that could allow UAVs into industries where the potential to reduce costs or even save lives is possible.

Drones and UAVs both come under the umbrella acronym RPAS, which stands for ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft System’. RPAS is the term preferred by the international organisations that regulate the safe use of aircrafts in shared air space. Another term that is commonly used by the British and American authorities is UA (Unmanned Aircraft) or RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft). With so many terms and acronyms - and with even the official authorities unable to decide on the most appropriate titles – it is easy to see how people can get confused.

What is a drone?

‘Drone’ was originally a military term and dates back to the development of the first unmanned aircrafts in World War 2. In 1941 the British developed a remote controlled, bi-plane style, pilotless aircraft called the DH.82 Queen Bee. It was from this craft that the term ‘drone’ is believed to have come from.

In nature, the drone bee has highly pre-programmed behaviour and its only job in the hive is to mate with the Queen bee, after which the drone dies. Like it’s natural namesake, the drone aircraft is also highly pre-programmed, with the singular goal of achieving it’s one function. Upon achieving this function, the drone is often sacrificed. The key characteristic of a drone is that it is not being controlled by a human pilot. The aircraft navigates using pre-programmed instructions that have been designated by the drone technician. The technician can still adjust the course though, and does so from a stationary control point where the location and functions of the drone monitored via computer. Drones are classified as APV’s, which stands for ‘Automated Piloted Vehicle’ and will often travel beyond the field of view (FOV) of the technician/pilot. The original purpose of the drone was to travel to areas that were unsafe for people to go to. Using GPS, the target location or locations are pre-programmed into the drone and it automatically navigates to the point or points. Many drones, particularly milatary versions are often single-use as their only goal to reach a particular target, either for recognisance or to deliver a pay-load.

What is a UAV?

UAV stands for ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ and is the preferred term for professionals and enthusiasts. A drone is a type of UAV, as it is an unmanned aircraft, but the defining difference is that a UAV is controlled in real-time by a human pilot who is watching the aircraft. UAVs are classified as RPVs, or Remotely Piloted Vehicles. UAVs use rotor-powered flight and they can take-off, hover, and land vertically. This classes them as VTOL style aircrafts. VTOL stands for ‘Vertical Take-Off and Landing’. UAVs are smaller than drones and are designed to be reusable. This has been a key feature that has made the UAV suitable for many commercial uses. The UAV can be designed for a range of different functions including building inspection and even emergency response. Most commercial and domestic UAVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries (lipo batteries) and there is a flight time of around 20 minutes.

Why is it important to know the difference? There are many different styles of drone and UAV and we will take a look at these in another article. The primary difference to remember is that drones are automated, and UAVs are controlled by a pilot using a radio controller in real time. Drones are also primarily used for military purposes, so the commercial aircraft you see doing a site inspection, or the mini flyer that you get for Christmas, are actually UAVs. Although many respected authorities in the UAV industry use the terms UAV and drone interchangeably, I see on a daily basis the different expectations - and occasional prejudices - that seem to come from the use of the "D" word. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the term ‘drone’ is used widely in the media when talking about autonomous and remotely piloted systems used in war scenarios. The war between America and the Islamic State, for example, has made the term “drone-strike” notorious. Secondly, the medias exaggeration and glorification of the negative side of hobbyist UAVs - notably the various privacy invasion stories, "crashed drones" and accidents involving "drones". Concerns for safety are entirely valid and there should of course be precautions taken to ensure safe use and flight, and the majority of UAV pilots I know are conscientious and respectful.

There has been a dramatic increase in UAV sales in the last few years - particularly in the hobby market. The cost to produce hobby UAVs has dramatically dropped from a few thousand pounds to under a hundred pounds for an entry level craft. So while I stated in the title that I hate to use the "D" word, that’s not strictly true. I use it all the time. Its use does however depend on the situation, the clients or audience.