The Difference Between Drones and UAVs

Last updated December 17th, 2019
A drone shot of the British countryside

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.

Some instances where unmanned aerial vehicles are taking over include:

  • Wildfire Control: UAVs are used to spot fires and also track their movements. Unmanned aerial vehicle that are equipped with thermal imaging cameras are being used to spot areas in the forest that emit abnormal forest temperatures. In this manner, these UAVs are instrumental in spotting wildfires mere minutes after they began.
  • Hurricane Hunting: Meteorologists have realized the potential help which drones can be in observing hurricanes and how they develop. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and Northrop Grumman, teamed up on a 3-year long, 30 million dollar experiment to use long distance drones to observe storms as they develop.
  • Regular Hunting: In some areas hunting isn’t just a sport, it’s a requirement. Hunting drones are being used to make this task easier.
  • Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Assistance: In humanitarian intervention, every second counts. Drones are becoming increasingly important due to their ability to access difficult terrain, and their ability to capture high-resolution photos. UAVs with high resolution cameras, from the air, can spot persons in need of help who may never have been seen otherwise. In 2017, Land Rover teamed up with the Austrian Red Cross to design a special operations vehicle that came equipped with a special thermal imaging UAV and a roof mounted launch pad for the express purpose of reducing response times.
  • Fighting Crime: The imaging abilities of UAVs, as well as their stealthy nature, make them ideal for security purposes. Police departments across the United States, and even the FBI, are purchasing UAVs for surveillance and other security-related activities. Security firms are also incorporating UAVs into their operations in order to deliver more robust services to their clients. Some of the UAVs they employ come with streaming abilities that activate immediately an alarm is triggered. Other UAVs work in tandem with alarms and fly over to a troubled spots when an alarm is triggered.
  • 3D Mapping: With their ability to scale great heights and cover long distances, UAVs have become useful in 3D mapping and aerial landscaping. Smaller sized unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to collect thousands of digital images that can be used to stitch together a 3D rendition of landscapes.
  • Product and Food Delivery: Several companies are putting in efforts towards mass deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles in to deliver products, including food and medical supplies. Amazon, UPS, Uber, and Alphabet are only some of the names involved in the race to rule the skies by leveraging UAVs for deliveries.
  • Mining: Mineral stockpiles have traditionally been difficult to assess and measure. But UAVs are changing all that. Mining companies are using unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with cameras to compile volumetric data from the air at a fraction of the cost of doing it manually. This reduces the risks involved in having human actors do the job, and these same drones are redeployed for security purposes and surveillance later on.
  • Realty: With UAVs, realtors are able to capture previously impossible shots in very high resolution. These companies are now able to go beyond brochure photos to deliver on-demand photography solutions for residential and commercial real estate projects. Some companies even go as far as providing potential  buyers with live video in stunning detail, instead of walkthroughs, using UAVs equipped with high-resolution cameras.
  • Agriculture: UAVs are taking the agricultural sector by storm as an increasing number of farmers use them for soil analysis and compiling data, crop spraying and fertilization, as well as planting and harvesting. Unmanned aerial vehicles have been proven to result in lower costs of farming and higher yields and profits.

The Way Forward

As regulators come with laws to regulate the drone space, you can expect terms to become clearer and better defined. But for now, nobody would mind if you chose to stick with referring to all UAVs as drones — because, strictly speaking, they are.

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