When an unmanned aerial vehicle reportedly flew within about 200 feet of an airliner earlier this week, outlets like Time and CNN chose to accompany their stories with a picture of the RQ-9 Reaper--this, despite that initially, there was no concrete description of the unmanned aircraft.
It's not terribly surprising that news outlets would default to an image of the Reaper; it's perhaps the most widely recognized drone in operation. But as more details of the incident surfaced, this simplification proved incredibly wrong. The unmanned craft is now described as a 3-foot-long quadrotor--a four-blade copter--which is wildly distinct from the 36-foot-long Reaper; a bit like the difference between a Johnny Seven O.M.A and an AK-47. That's when I realized: drones are really confusing. Even to people who get paid to write about them! So here's a primer on what is and isn't a drone, the differences between common types of drones, and a bunch of other stuff you need to know to sound smart talking about these things:
Where does the term drone come from?
When unmanned flying vehicles were first introduced to the U.S. military, the ability to control them from afar wasn't very sophisticated. So the first drones flew along pre-set paths, operating off an internal navigation system. This led to servicemen informally referring to any machine that flew without human control a "drone," and Germany still has some like this in service today. That said, the "not being controlled by a human" part of the definition has since been lost to everyday use.
What exactly are drones?
"Drone" as a category refers to any unmanned, remotely piloted flying craft, ranging from something as small as a radio-controlled toy helicopter to the 32,000-pound, $104 million Global Hawk. If it flies and it's controlled by a pilot on the ground, it fits under the everyday-language definition of drone.
Wait, does that mean model airplanes are drones?
Almost! Actually, under the law as it stands, any unmanned, remotely piloted vehicle in the United States flown for hobby or recreational purposes is a model airplane, thanks to the 2012 FAA re-authorization act. In 2015, the FAA will suggest new, drone-specific regulations, at which point model airplane law and drone law will probably diverge. Until then, though, all small drones used by private citizens in the U.S. are legally model airplanes.
So is the military using model airplanes?
No. The military is not considered a private citizen, so it plays by different rules, and uses different terminology.
Okay, so what terms does the military use?
The military has described drones, variously, as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), and Remotely Piloted Systems. (The FAA uses some of these terms, too.) The difference between UAV/RPV and UAS/RPS is that the former terms refer to the vehicle itself, and the latter terms describe the vehicle as well as the pilot and support staff. These are useful distinctions for specialists, but not for regular people.
What are the different types of drones the military uses?
The United States military alone maintains three different classifications, one each for the Air Force, Army, and Marines. Part of the confusion in drone terminology is overlapping and competing definitions. The Air Force files drones under five different tiers; the Army and the Marines file drones under three tiers, and none of those tiers perfectly overlap. That's boring and technical. Instead, here are some of the most commonly used or iconic drones:
The RQ-11 Raven weighs 4 pounds, is launched with a throw, and is piloted with a hand-held unit that resembles a video-game controller. The Raven isn't the most iconic military drone, but it is probably the most used: more than 19,000 have been built. It's mainly useful for seeing around corners and sending footage of rooftops back to troops moving through a city.
It also looks like an awkward model airplane, and it breaks apart like LEGOs when it lands:
The RQ-7 Shadow is approximately man-sized, and can fly almost 80 miles away from its commander while providing near-instant video to give a good picture of the battlefield.
MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper
The MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are the most iconic drones, and odds are if there's a news story about a drone, it's going to have a picture of one of these. These guys can be armed so that makes them largely, though by no means exclusively, the preferred tool for what we call drone strikes. The main difference between them is that the newer Reaper is larger, has a more powerful engine, and can carry much, much more. They still both look like someone slapped a giant wing on a match, though.
Rq-4 Global Hawk
The Rq-4 Global Hawk is the leviathan of the drone fleet. As mentioned above, it weighs more than 32,000 pounds, has a 130-foot wingspan, and can fly for more than a day. It can reach up to 60,000 feet, and from high elevation it can take high-resolution images of the land below, as well as detect and track moving targets.
Though not in use by the United States, let's take a look at the Aeryon Scout. It's a small quadrotor that NATO allies supplied to the Libyan rebels in the recent campaign to overthrow Gaddafi. The scout weighs less than 3 pounds and can fly for about 25 minutes, making it useful for checking around corners. It's operated with a touch screen, too.
That's by no means a comprehensive list of military drones, but it should get you through a dinner party.
What about private industry? Does it use simpler terms?
As of last week, yes! Not because the drone industry doesn't have weird or obscure terms, but on Friday the drone lobbyist Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conceded that "drone" is what people are calling unmanned aerial vehicles, so "drone" is now begrudgingly the industry term.
So what should I call them?
Ultimately, depends on your audience. In everyday conversation or casual writing, "drone" is fine. If the audience is military or industry, or knowledgeable policy makers, it might be best to skip the informal terms, crack open Google, and figure out exactly how these people are going to talk about flying robots.
Great article and glad that some media outlets are clarifying things for the public - everyone has that same conception of "drone" which isn't really all that accurate. If you're interested in checking out the consumer quadcopter "drones" or UAVs, I have a chart of a few of the most popular ones: www.quadcopterhq.com/top-quadcopters/ as well as some FAQs about quadcopters in general. Hope you enjoy and happy to answer any questions!
The nice things about drones, POPSCI doesn't call them robots.
They tend to call to many electro mechanical things robots, ya know. ;)
There's a bit more to the distinction between UAS and UAV ( and ROS/ROV and RPS/RPV ). The system includes all of the required stuff to fly the plane. This means the control station, any landing equipment, launch equipment and even maintenance equipment. It is the complete "system", rather than just the vehicle.
For example, the Shadow 200 TUAS includes quite a lot, multiple vehicles in fact. It has landing and launching systems.
Also, can I say a big THANK YOU to Popsci. The Shadow 200 is really the premier system currently used by the military, yet it rarely even gets mentioned. As a former Shadow operator, I naturally like seeing it around, even if I didn't actually like flying it:)
Anyways, the Predator is a strike drone...only to be called on when a priority target has already been identified, and a UAV strike is the preferred method. It isn't actually used much. Reaper on the other hand, is the most used, but it is immensely limited. As mentioned, it's only for a quick peak around the immediate area.
The UAV that provides near 24/7 surveillance over multiple areas, is easily redirected when priority assets pop up and has a good endurance is the Shadow 200. This is the plane that searches for IEDs, scans routes, follows targets, tracks mortar teams, provides surveillance and recon for soldiers on the ground, the works. It has both a normal "day" camera, and infra-red cameras. It also has a laser pointer system (not sure if they ever got around to fitting an actual laser designater).
Oh, and Shadow systems don't deploy alone or to 1 spot. We are spread out. So, don't think that 80 miles limits the plane. You just pass it off to a different command station:)
That's probably about as much as I should say though. I know a lot of people here would love specifics, and even though most of the now 5 year old information I have on the Shadow is likely out of date thanks to upgrades, it's still best to hold off on the details.
If anyone has any questions though, I can try to answer them. No promises though.
What we can expect is these "devices" been highjacked!
Not really. It'd be doable, but still difficult, for civilian based model airplanes. However, not so for military aircraft. We use proprietary equipment to control the UAVs, not a simple remote control.
For the shadow, you would need to steal a control station, discovery the frequencies and tail number of the plane, and most likely know the direction of the plane. ( If you are fairly close the omni-directional antennae will get signal, but not at most distances. ) Even then, you need to be a fair bit closer than the main control station or you will just fight for link. In the case of fighting for link, the plane will just be set to return to base where the primary control station will maintain control over it.
More advanced planes like the Reaper and Global Hawk are even more difficult. They can require a satellite connection and encryptions on top of the above.
Reaper would be the easiest to capture, but you still need to know when it is flying, need to be closer than the actual operator ( which considering its very short range is pretty close. ), and you still have to have stolen the controlling equipment. All of this, with an infantry platoon standing around the original operator, probably within 50 feet of where you are. You would also need direct line of sight with the plane, so the operator would almost certainly see you first. Congratulations: You now have a small, minimally useful UAV that contains no military information on it...and a platoon of soldiers heading straight at you. You would be captured or dead before you even got your hands on the UAV.
If a drone in your neighborhood intentionally killed someone or if it was high jacked\hacked and then killed someone, how would you know the difference?
The first party would be in denial and if the hijacker\hacker was found would be in denial too.
I only see DOOM coming from drones in the USA!
Loved the factual presentation!
This explains a lot considering one of the anchors had mentioned the threat of the drone being sucked into the engine which seemed unlikely had it been a Predator or Reaper drone. Shame news about science is delivered by those whom generally have no knowledge of science (or anything for that matter)
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