What's the difference between a UAV and a drone?

Aug 31, 2016 9:00:00 AM

Difference between drone and UAV

For anyone new to the world of unmanned aerial systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, quadcopters or drones, the terminology might be a little confusing. 


The good news is that to most people in the industry, these terms all mean basically the same thing.

The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that if you're applying for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), Transport Canada doesn't like the term "drone."

According to a June 2016 presentation at the Calgary Drone Fair, the acceptable names for UAVs are "Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS).... but not DRONES." The slide deck notes that "the term drone is misleading, as there is always a person in the loop."

This push back against the terminology is an uphill battle. As Tom Farrier, Chair, ISASI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Working Group noted, "The term 'drone' is lazy and inexact. However, it's also becoming like "Thermos"(TM) and "Kleenex" (TM): a common usage that most people would agree refers to X.  In this case, "X" would be an unmanned aircraft, specific type undefined, but a blind flying robot of some sort."

He further noted: "It isn't wrong to call almost any kind of remotely or self-directed vehicle a 'drone.' All unmanned aircraft may be considered 'drones.'"


Colloquially, any remotely-operated flying machine that isn't carrying a person has become known as a drone. But the technical term for such devices is UAV.

The term quadcopter is more intuitive. It refers to a UAV or drone that is equipped with four main rotor systems, without a tail rotor. Again, Farrier says, "There's nothing that says it has to be unmanned, but common usage of the term these days has given it that implied qualifier."

Farrier's three takeaways are:

  1. It isn't wrong to call almost any kind of remotely or self-directed vehicle a "drone."
  2. All unmanned aircraft may be considered "drones."
  3. It's basically impossible to come up with a currently flying example of a quadcopter that isn't an unmanned aircraft (part of an "unmanned aircraft system") and therefore, at the end of the day... a drone.

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