Drone vs UAV? What’s the difference?

QDrone vs UAV? What’s the difference?

Is there a difference or are these the same thing?

AThe Answer


In the last few years, the word drone is becoming synonymous with two things, a death dealing machine flying high above Afghanistan and hobbyist quadcopters that are popping up everywhere like the Parrot AR seen below. drone_2 They are even delivering products for Amazon these days. It seems that one day our mailmen may even be replaced with flying drones. Science fiction here we come.

Back to the matter at hand. The difference between UAVs and drones.

Trying to distinguish between drones and UAVs is a little tricky. Mostly because the term “drone” is more of a media buzzword rather than a clearly defined machine like a UAV. Due to the increasing popularity of drones for domestic and hobby use though, the government has decided to put some effort into defining exactly what makes up a drone so that regulations can be put in place.

I would say that every flying drone is a UAV, but every UAV is not a drone. Let’s take a deeper look to see what I mean.

What is a Drone?

A drone is any kind of autonomously or remotely guided vehicle whether on land, sea, or air. The main qualifier, and currently only agreed upon definition, for something to be a drone is that there is no pilot inside.

Hobbyist quadcopters are drones, remote submarines are drones, and even robotic bomb diffusers are drones. All of these can be considered drones in the most basic sense of the word because they are machines/vehicles that are piloted through pre-programmed computer software or a remote pilot.

Let’s get more specific and just focus on flying drones for now, as I believe that is what your question is referring to.

In the simplest sense, even the 1917 Kettering Bug pictured below can be considered a drone. drone_3 The “Bug” rolled off a larger aircraft and used electrical and pneumatic controls to guide it towards a target. Its flight pattern couldn’t be adjusted remotely, it couldn’t be recalled and, along the way down its engine would shutoff and wings would be released before falling out the sky and hitting the target. Not exactly what we think of today when we use the term drone, but by the only currently agreed upon definition, it is a drone.

Currently the government is trying to create a more detailed definition for the word drone so that when regulations are put in place, they will be tailored specifically to drones and not all remote piloted crafts like RC airplanes. To clear up some of the confusion, some proponents are trying to add that in order for something to be considered a drone, it needs to have some form of autonomous flying software that allows it to function, adjust its flight pattern or return to its launch spot without human intervention.

What this basically means is that unless it has some sort of on-board autonomous flying system, it shouldn’t be considered a drone even if there is no pilot in the craft. Of course nobody has been able to fully agree on this.

According to Chris Anderson, the former Wired editor who currently runs DIYDrones.com and 3DRobotics, drones include any remotely controlled flying object that is capable of switching to autonomous control at some point during the flight. He feels that a basic remote-controlled model aircraft wouldn’t be considered a drone.

Ryan Calo, a Professor of law at the University of Washington, seems to agree in some sense. He feels that there are three qualifications that must be met to call something a drone. It needs to be able to fly, it must have some sensing capacity like a camera or infrared sensor, and it must be capable of some level of autonomous flight.

The military and the government on the other hand, don’t seem to agree. They currently define any flying craft without a pilot inside as a drone.

What do you think? Would you consider the Q500 Typhoon Quadcopter
drone_4 which comes with a 1080P 60FPS HD video camera, 3-axis gimbal and personal ground station, a return to home feature, plus a transmitter that supports a 5.8GHz video downlink that delivers streaming video to the built-in screen of the transmitter to be the same as the E-flite 3100 Apprentice? drone_5 What if I told you that the E-flite has a “panic” control system that returns to, and maintains, level flight if the operator has trouble flying?

You can see why things begin to get a little tricky here.

Stabilizing flight could be considered some level of autonomous flying ability, but that’s as far as it goes. It can’t be programmed on a path or return to home if it loses radio control transmission. Due to the camera, return to home programming, and precision, hover style flight capabilities of the Q500 Typhoon Quadcopter it seems to me it should fall under different regulation. The Q500 could easily be used for snooping or video recording of neighbors while the E-flite’s flying style would make that nearly impossible even if a camera was attached.

So How is a UAV Different than a Drone?

UAV is military or government speak for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Most often when the term UAV is used, they are referring to drones, but this is not 100% accurate. You see, an RC airplane is a UAV. It doesn’t have a pilot on board steering the craft and it is controlled remotely, hence it is an unmanned aerial vehicle or RPC (remote piloted craft). According to the military, these would be considered drones, but since most RC airplanes don’t have any kind of autonomous flying software though, should they really be considered drones? I feel the term UAV would be more accurate whereas calling an RC airplane a drone doesn’t really seem to fit. Unfortunately, not every federal department agrees with this which is what makes distinguishing the two so difficult.

According to Les Dorr, a spokesperson for the FAA, “the Federal Aviation Administration uses the designation UAS (unmanned aircraft system) to describe anything from a remote controlled model helicopter to a passenger plane-sized predator attack craft.”

The Department of Defense has slightly different wording in their definition of a UAV or UAS, but it seems to line up with what the FAA says. They apply the term UAV to any “aircraft or ballon” controlled by a person or software from afar.

Neither of these departments has a definition for drones.

So What’s the Verdict?

If you are just interested in buying a drone for fun to fly around your neighborhood, then there is no difference between UAVs and drones. If you want to search on Amazon or some other online shopping site, I suggest you use the term drone as it is more popular and will bring up a larger variety of options.

If you are interested in the difference between the two for regulatory issues, then many more factors must be taken into account. If we look at these two descriptions and the input of various professionals and regulatory departments, we should all be thoroughly confused by now. As mentioned previously, the problem is a lack of a universally accepted definition. This muddies the water and makes it hard to make any kind of blanket statement about what a drone is or isn’t and whether UAVs and drones are the same thing.

I tend to agree that RC airplanes and drones aren’t the same thing and have very different capabilities. Because of this I feel that there needs to be some way to distinguish between the two. I agree that some form autonomous flying capability must be present for something to be considered a drone and I would go so far as to include some considerations regarding its flying capability. I would add that in order for something to fall under the regulations being enacted for domestic drone use, it needs to have the ability to hover in one place for an extended period of time.

Most professionals in the industry agree that the main difference between the two is the capability for autonomous flight. Following this line of thinking, any flying drone has to be a UAV, but not every UAV has to be a drone.