Flying Robots 101: Everything You Need To Know About Drones

How do you define a drone? What's the difference between an RQ-9 Reaper and a quadrotor? Your pressing drone questions, answered

The armed RQ-9 Reaper MQ-1 Predator, seen on the left, is visually distinct from the Aeryon Scout Quadrotor. The Reaper is also six almost eleven times as long. Wikimedia Commons

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.

Unmanned remotely piloted Global Hawk 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:

RQ-11 Raven
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:

RQ-7 Shadow
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.

soldier checking the Shadow 200 drone

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.

MQ1-predator UAV drone in flight

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.

Aeryon Scout
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.

Aeryon Scout drone in flight

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.