RQ-9 Reaper and an Aeryon Scout Quadrotor


How do you define a drone? What's the difference between an RQ-9 Reaper and a quadrotor? Your pressing drone questions, answered    

RQ-9 Reaper and an Aeryon Scout Quadrotor                    The armed RQ-9 Reaper MQ-1 Predator, seen on the left, is visually distinct from the Aeryon Scout Quadrotor. The Reaper is also six almost eleven times as long.                Wikimedia Commons        

When an unmanned aerial vehicle reportedly flew within about 200 feet of an airliner earlier this week, outlets like Time and CNN chose to accompany their stories with a picture of the RQ-9 Reaper--this, despite that initially, there was no concrete description of the unmanned aircraft.

It's not terribly surprising that news outlets would default to an image of the Reaper; it's perhaps the most widely recognized drone in operation. But as more details of the incident surfaced, this simplification proved incredibly wrong. The unmanned craft is now described as a 3-foot-long quadrotor--a four-blade copter--which is wildly distinct from the 36-foot-long Reaper; a bit like the difference between a Johnny Seven O.M.A and an AK-47. That's when I realized: drones are really confusing. Even to people who get paid to write about them! So here's a primer on what is and isn't a drone, the differences between common types of drones, and a bunch of other stuff you need to know to sound smart talking about these things:

Where does the term drone come from?

When unmanned flying vehicles were first introduced to the U.S. military, the ability to control them from afar wasn't very sophisticated. So the first drones flew along pre-set paths, operating off an internal navigation system. This led to servicemen informally referring to any machine that flew without human control a "drone," and Germany still has some like this in service today. That said, the "not being controlled by a human" part of the definition has since been lost to everyday use.

What exactly are drones?

"Drone" as a category refers to any unmanned, remotely piloted flying craft, ranging from something as small as a radio-controlled toy helicopter to the 32,000-pound, $104 million Global Hawk. If it flies and it's controlled by a pilot on the ground, it fits under the everyday-language definition of drone.

Global Hawk
Global Hawk:   Wikimedia Commons

Wait, does that mean model airplanes are drones?

Almost! Actually, under the law as it stands, any unmanned, remotely piloted vehicle in the United States flown for hobby or recreational purposes is a model airplane, thanks to the 2012 FAA re-authorization act. In 2015, the FAA will suggest new, drone-specific regulations, at which point model airplane law and drone law will probably diverge. Until then, though, all small drones used by private citizens in the U.S. are legally model airplanes.

So is the military using model airplanes?

No. The military is not considered a private citizen, so it plays by different rules, and uses different terminology.

Okay, so what terms does the military use?

The military has described drones, variously, as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), and Remotely Piloted Systems. (The FAA uses some of these terms, too.) The difference between UAV/RPV and UAS/RPS is that the former terms refer to the vehicle itself, and the latter terms describe the vehicle as well as the pilot and support staff. These are useful distinctions for specialists, but not for regular people.

What are the different types of drones the military uses?

The United States military alone maintains three different classifications, one each for the Air Force, Army, and Marines. Part of the confusion in drone terminology is overlapping and competing definitions. The Air Force files drones under five different tiers; the Army and the Marines file drones under three tiers, and none of those tiers perfectly overlap. That's boring and technical. Instead, here are some of the most commonly used or iconic drones:

RQ-11 Raven The RQ-11 Raven weighs 4 pounds, is launched with a throw, and is piloted with a hand-held unit that resembles a video-game controller. The Raven isn't the most iconic military drone, but it is probably the most used: more than 19,000 have been built. It's mainly useful for seeing around corners and sending footage of rooftops back to troops moving through a city.

It also looks like an awkward model airplane, and it breaks apart like LEGOs when it lands:

RQ-7 Shadow The RQ-7 Shadow is approximately man-sized, and can fly almost 80 miles away from its commander while providing near-instant video to give a good picture of the battlefield.

Shadow 200
Shadow 200 :   Wikimedia Commons

MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper The MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are the most iconic drones, and odds are if there's a news story about a drone, it's going to have a picture of one of these. These guys can be armed so that makes them largely, though by no means exclusively, the preferred tool for what we call drone strikes. The main difference between them is that the newer Reaper is larger, has a more powerful engine, and can carry much, much more. They still both look like someone slapped a giant wing on a match, though.

MQ-1 Predator UAV
MQ-1 Predator UAV:   Wikimedia Commons

Rq-4 Global Hawk The Rq-4 Global Hawk is the leviathan of the drone fleet. As mentioned above, it weighs more than 32,000 pounds, has a 130-foot wingspan, and can fly for more than a day. It can reach up to 60,000 feet, and from high elevation it can take high-resolution images of the land below, as well as detect and track moving targets.

Aeryon Scout Though not in use by the United States, let's take a look at the Aeryon Scout. It's a small quadrotor that NATO allies supplied to the Libyan rebels in the recent campaign to overthrow Gaddafi. The scout weighs less than 3 pounds and can fly for about 25 minutes, making it useful for checking around corners. It's operated with a touch screen, too.

Aeryon Scout
Aeryon Scout:   Wikimedia Commons

That's by no means a comprehensive list of military drones, but it should get you through a dinner party.

What about private industry? Does it use simpler terms?

As of last week, yes! Not because the drone industry doesn't have weird or obscure terms, but on Friday the drone lobbyist Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conceded that "drone" is what people are calling unmanned aerial vehicles, so "drone" is now begrudgingly the industry term.

So what should I call them?

Ultimately, depends on your audience. In everyday conversation or casual writing, "drone" is fine. If the audience is military or industry, or knowledgeable policy makers, it might be best to skip the informal terms, crack open Google, and figure out exactly how these people are going to talk about flying robots.

taken from: here

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  • I didn't know the Raven broke apart like that on landing. How cool.

  • Here's an addendum/clarification of your point: "Until then, though, all small drones used by private citizens in the U.S. are legally model airplanes."

    That depends on you using it specifically as a hobbyist and not for any "business purposes"

    There's currently no regulatory framework for commercially operating a UAS (the FAA's preferred terminology) in the National Airspace. If you're using it for any "business purpose", including research, R&D for future commercial applications, etc., then you have to get an FAA permit to operate. The type of permit depends on whether you are a public or private entity. Public operators require a Certificate of Authorization (COA), whereas private entities must apply for a Special Airworthiness Certificate, and they are currently only available with an "Experimental" sub-designation precluding their commercial use, but useful for research purposes.

    As was mentioned in the post, sometime in 2015 the regulatory framework to support public and civil UAS use will be in place. In the meantime, commercial UAS operators have either ceased their operations, been shut down by the FAA, or have tried to fly under the radar (pun intended) and hope to not draw regulatory attention. Some have even said that they'll only sell the post-production and editing of UAS collected .... This ridiculous type of end run around legislative intent is not likely to be welcomed by the FAA.

    So, it's all up in the air for now (and another...) and we'll all have to wait until 2015 to see what type of regulations we have to work with. Hopefully, there will be a reasonable classification of UAS that makes distinctions between a small RC quadrotor, a gas powered long flight glider, a Raven, etc. Something I'm not entirely clear about are the boundaries of the National Airspace when UAS are involved. Are you in the NA when you're hovering at 20 m above private land? Does it change if you were flying in a national park? Obviously a quadrotor flying 40 m above the ground in a remote forest has next to zero chance of presenting a danger to person or property, but a RED camera carrying octocopter flying above the Superbowl crowd does.

    I hope that the community does a couple of things: 1) Make good-faith efforts to operate UAS within the FAA regulatory framework, and 2) Talk to the people that are crafting the legislation. If we want to make sure that the final legislation makes reasonable distinctions between aircraft classes and use cases, we need to communicate our experience and desires to the government officials that work for us. You can find contact information and all the existing regulatory disclosures at the FAA UAS website.

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