What’s The Difference Between A Drone, UAV and UAS?

By Wiley Stickney

Published on

Heron-1 UAV

You’ve probably heard the term “drone” a lot lately, referring to those cool little helicopter-like gadgets that people fly for fun or work. But have you ever felt confused by all the different names and terms used for these nifty devices? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there! It might seem a bit strange that the word “drone” is used to describe everything from a kid’s toy aircraft to a sophisticated military weapon. Even though they serve very different purposes, they’re all lumped under the same name. But why is that? Well, let’s break it down!

To understand this better, we need to know that every UAV is a drone, but not every drone is a UAV. Sounds confusing, right? Let me explain!

Here’s a simple breakdown of the most common terms you might come across, so you can make sense of their meanings and differences:

Drone

When people talk about “drones,” they’re usually referring to unmanned aircraft that can fly on their own without a human pilot on board. However, the term “drone” is much broader than that. It can also include autonomous vehicles that operate on land or water, as long as they don’t have a person controlling them from inside.

While “drones” are commonly associated with aircraft that can be controlled remotely or flown autonomously, there’s no clear agreement among experts on the exact definition, except that they all lack an onboard pilot.

UAV

A UAV, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, is an aircraft that can fly without a human pilot on board. It can be controlled remotely using a device like a controller or tablet, or it can fly autonomously. So, yes, a UAV is the same thing as a drone. These terms are often used interchangeably.

However, some professionals like to distinguish UAVs as drones that have autonomous flight capabilities, while drones might not necessarily have that feature. In essence, every UAV is a drone, but not every drone is a UAV. For now, feel free to use whichever term you’re most comfortable with!

UAS

A UAS, or Unmanned Aircraft System, includes not just the UAV (or drone) itself, but also the person controlling it from the ground and the entire system that connects them. So, the UAV is a key part of the UAS, specifically referring to the aircraft itself.

RPA

Some pilots prefer the term “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” (RPA) for certain types of UAVs that require more advanced flying skills than simple store-bought controllers. Flying an RPA demands a higher level of piloting expertise beyond basic handheld controls.

No matter which term you use, the most important thing is to have fun and stay safe while enjoying your flying adventures!

Wiley is a former commercial pilot and flight instructor, who has flown over 50 different types of aircraft, from small propellers to large jets. He writes about the technical aspects of flying, such as aircraft design, aerodynamics, navigation, weather, and safety.