By now, everyone has heard the term ‘drone’ before.
You may have also come across the term ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ — or you might not, but you’re more likely to have heard of its abbreviation; UAV for short.
Usually, both ‘drone’ and ‘UAV’ are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. While media and the military tend to use the word ‘drone’ more often, the FAA (the Federal Aviation Administration in the US) tends to lean towards ‘UAV’.
But, they are not the same. Not strictly, anyway.
Besides, doesn’t it feel strange that the same word drone is used to name what can be described as the $1,000 instrument of a recreational hobby and also a $10 million war machine used by the military?
But that’s not where the differences between drones and UAVs lie. To understand the subtle differences, we have to look at the various definitions of each term.
What Is a Drone Defined As?
Any remotely guided or autonomous vehicle can rightly be described as a drone. For a something to be a drone, there has to be no pilot in its cockpit. All the remotely controlled devices you see been flown across the sky by enthusiasts and those unmanned weapons used by the military therefore qualify as drones.
But those are not the only things that qualify as drones, according to this definition. Remote controlled cars, self-driving cars, autonomous submarines — anything that moves without a human sitting at the wheel — are these all drones?
While most people will think of an unmanned aircraft, capable of flying autonomously, the term drone actually refers to a wide range of land, sea, and air vehicles. All of these vehicles are considered drones because they are able to move about either through input from a remote pilot or through pre-programmed software.
Regulators are pushing for a more precise and functional definition for the word ‘drone’ to pave the way for more effective regulation.
They want a definition that would apply to the multi-copters we see flying around instead of the autonomous or remotely controlled vehicles that are being developed.
One suggestion that has come up seeks to define drones as vehicles that have software that allows it to function or return to its launch spot without human intervention. Not everyone agrees on this, even though it does differentiate between multi-copters and remote controlled helicopters.
What Is a UAV Defined As?
The term UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, and refers to any flying aircraft piloted by software or remote control, and (crucially) which is capable of reuse.
The reuse aspect is what excludes remote-controlled or software-controlled weapons like missiles from being described as drones.
Many flight professionals believe that true UAVs must have autonomous flight capabilities, and that this is what separates them from other drones. But this idea is not universally accepted.
What Are the Differences Between a Drone and a UAV?
From the definition above, you can see the difference between these two related terms is subtle and can be easy to miss.
Basically, every UAV is a drone, but not every drone is a UAV.
There are drones that cannot be described as UAVs for obvious reasons like being land-based or water-based.
Any authentic multi-copter enthusiast or drone specialist would point out this difference — and you could show off your smarts by pointing it out to your friends. The two words are used interchangeably in everyday language however, and ‘drone’ is the more popular since it is more commonly used by the media, movies, and popular television.
Nobody would judge you if you discarded the phrase unmanned aerial vehicle altogether and used strictly drones from now on. And you can expect to be handed a quadcopter or some other multi-copter if said you wanted to buy a drone — you may even be handed an RC car.
How Are UAVs Used?
Unmanned aerial vehicles are growing so popular that barely anyone can keep up with trends and the increasing number of capabilities they come with. We have seen them become integrated into the processes of several industries already, and many more seem on the verge of following suit.
Today, UAV models range from those you can conveniently fit into your pocket as you take a walk into the woods for the perfect photo, to those that embark on high-risk aerial military surveillance missions deep into hostile territory.