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What's in a Name?

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, May/June 2021
By Alina George

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” — William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Juliet offered those famous words to profess love for Romeo and assert that a name is just that — a label. A name doesn’t change anything about the rose.

So how do these words apply to an unmanned aircraft system (UAS)? You’ve probably noticed already that there are many names for UAS. A UAS can be called a drone, or a worker bee, or even a quadcopter. What about an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV? Is there a “correct” term?

Let’s start at the beginning. The overarching colloquial term for all remotely piloted aircraft is “drone.” The FAA adopted this industry designation to complement the agency’s initial UAS term and describe any aircraft without a pilot onboard, regardless of size, shape, or capability. Beneath this umbrella term are several interchangeable terms (e.g., UAS, RPA, or UAV). Others denote categories (e.g., first-person-view or model aircraft). Each has a slightly different use and connotation. Now for a closer look:

“Unmanned Aircraft System” (UAS) is used interchangeably with “drone,” although 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 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 rule, following the statute, requires 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.

Quadcopter UAS

“Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) is used by industry interchangeably with UAS; however, the FAA has chosen under the newly published regulation 14 CFR part 89 to define the term “unmanned aircraft” (UA) as the aircraft itself, to distinguish the system from the aircraft. 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, which look like airplanes, or rotorcraft such as quadcopters or other multirotor aircraft. The term UAV is mostly associated with military aircraft, but 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.

unmanned aerial vehicle

“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. It does not apply to autonomous aircraft, which would still be called UAVs.

remotely piloted aircraft system

“First-Person View” (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 multi-rotor aircraft can have FPV, which is known for its precise flying and used frequently in drone racing.

first person view UAS

Model aircraft were around before airplanes were invented; in fact, the first model aircraft, dating back to 200 BCE, was found in Egypt in 1898. Model aircraft are made from a variety of materials and use a variety of propulsion methods. Flying models are typically radio controlled, flown for recreation only and, since the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, defined by the FAA as unmanned aircraft. Static models are generally used as decorations. Model aircraft can differ from drones in their communication and control systems and functions.

model airplane

By Any Other Name

With interest growing in gender-neutral language across the aviation industry, the FAA has asked its Drone Advisory Committee for recommendations on terms that promote inclusion. Regardless of the eventual conclusion, though, Shakespeare had the right idea: by any name, these aircraft are useful, interesting, and fun.

Alina George is a project specialist in the Operational Programs Branch of the FAA’s Office of UAS Integration.

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