Defining Drones: What is a Drone?

Drone’ has become a common term used to describe a new technology that’s making an impact in all sorts of industries. But what does drone actually mean? Is it possible to define ‘drone’ when so many parties have their own acronyms and intended meanings?

In 2010, Parrot unveiled the AR.Drone, kickstarting what we now know as the consumer drone industry. It was a futuristic release: a flying robot with a camera attached? That I can control with my iPhone? Seriously?

Parrot‘s tech was well ahead of its time. As well as developing a (relatively) stable aircraft that could be flown indoors and controlled with a phone, Parrot‘s AR.Drone also had an augmented reality function. Each was designed to be used in virtual combat games with another AR.Drone.

But it was a ‘drone’. After Parrot came the likes of DJI and 3DR, whose camera drones quickly set new standards and attracted people – both hobbyists and those looking into commercial functions – from all over the world.

The term ‘Drone’ has now become ubiquitous. Everybody now seems to agree that it refers to multirotor aircraft of some sort carrying a camera. The meaning has shifted from what was once purely a military term.

What is a drone?

In aviation, space, and now photography, a drone is simply an unpiloted vehicle. Technically drones don’t even have to fly. They can be ground-based robots. But for the purpose of defining drones in this context, it’s the flying ones we’re interested in.

Plenty of commercial drone users prefer UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system). And don’t forget SUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft System).

In the UK, you’ll find yet another jumble of letters: RPAS, which stands for Remotely Piloted Aircraft System.

This confusion is partly down to the definitions applied by different governing bodies and trade organizations around the world.

And surprisingly enough, none of those catchy acronyms have carried over into the consumer market. DJI, the world’s leading manufacturer, goes with ‘drones’. As do most industry news outlets who’d rather not waste their time differentiating between UAV, UAS, SUAS and RPAS.

But we can all agree on one thing. Whichever acronym you prefer, the main features of a drone are consistent:

  • A drone is essentially a remotely piloted flying robot
  • A drone doesn’t require rest, just battery changes
  • A drone usually carries a camera or some other data-capturing sensor
  • A drone is capable of operating with varying degrees of autonomy: on-board sensors and computer systems, like computer vision and GPS, aid flight

In many cases, drones are used to prevent putting people at risk. That applies to military drones in the same way it applies to commercial drone inspections.

In other cases it’s about efficiency. These little flying robots are increasingly affordable and can capture all kinds of data at scale, replacing the need for manual surveys and operations involving manned aircraft.

Drone technology is here to stay. It’s about time we settled on a definition of what it actually means and moved on from the alphabet soup of industry acronyms.

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