What’s the difference between drones, UAS, UAV, and RPAS?

drone uav uas difference

Everybody has heard about drones by now, but there are several other oft-used terms like UAS and UAV that tend to confuse readers. So, what exactly is a drone and how is it different from these other commonly heard terms such as UAS, UAV, FPV, RPAS, and model aircraft?

Alina George, a project specialist in the Operational Programs Branch of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, recently cleared the air about FAA’s preferred language when it comes to remotely piloted aircraft.

What is a drone?

According to the FAA, “drone” is the overarching colloquial term used for all remotely piloted aircraft. The FAA adopted this industry designation to describe any aircraft without a pilot onboard, regardless of size, shape, or capability. Beneath this umbrella term are several interchangeable terms (UAS, RPA, or UAV). Others denote categories, such as first-person view or model aircraft, each with slightly different use and connotation.

What is a UAS?

Although the term Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is used interchangeably with “drone,” a UAS is a “system” of three parts, with “drone” referring to the aircraft itself. In addition to the drone (aircraft), the UAS includes the control station and the communication link between the control station and the aircraft.

A quadcopter UAS

A UAS can employ a fixed-wing or rotor. It is piloted by a person not in the aircraft and generally located on the ground. The FAA’s rules require that the remote pilot-in-command (RPIC), or a visual observer, be able to see the UAS at all times while the aircraft is in the air.

What is a UAV?

The industry has been using the term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) interchangeably with UAS. However, following the 14 CFR part 89 regulation, the FAA has chosen to define the term “unmanned aircraft” (UA) as the aircraft itself, to distinguish the system from the aircraft. As such, the industry’s UAV term and the FAA’s UA term are really just part of a UAS. Either term can refer to fixed-wing UAs or multirotor aircraft.

And even though UAV is mostly associated with military aircraft, it can be used for a variety of other functions. UAV can also be semi-autonomous, meaning that the aircraft performs using sensors, a ground control system, and specific software programming.

A General Atomics RQ-1A Predator UAV

What is an RPAS?

Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) is the preferred international term for UAS. Aviation agencies such as Eurocontrol, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the European Safety Agency (EASA) use RPAS. However, this term doesn’t apply to autonomous aircraft, which would still be called UAVs.

One example of the controls of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System

What does FPV mean?

First-person view or FPV is a subcategory of UAS. Though remotely positioned, the remote pilot still has an onboard-the-aircraft view via a camera feed sent to goggles or a monitor. Both fixed-wing and multirotor aircraft can have FPV, which is known for its precise flying and is used frequently in drone racing.

A First-Person View UAS

What is a model aircraft?

Model aircraft were around even before airplanes were invented. The first model aircraft can be traced back to 200 BCE Egypt. These can be made from different kinds of materials, using a variety of propulsion methods. Flying models are typically radio-controlled, flown for recreation only, and defined by the FAA as unmanned aircraft since the Reauthorization Act of 2018. Static models, meanwhile, are generally used as decorations.

Scale model of an aircraft

What’s next for drone terminology?

Since the drone industry is still in its nascent stage, we can expect the language surrounding it to evolve further in the next few years. The FAA, for example, has asked its Drone Advisory Committee for recommendations on terms that promote inclusion.

Read more: New drone pilot? FAA’s ‘12 Days of Drones’ safety campaign is for you

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