More dubious information being spread by the Scientific American

I can't believe just how wrong  John Villasenor can be, I guess he figured one of us would mention this here and it would drive his blog posts wild at Scientific American.

He completely misses the real definitions of UAS its not about having an autopilot onboard. What worries me more is that Mr Villasenor is asked to speak about UAS to other grown ups. There is a huge gap between the reality of UAS and what CSI tells us.

John is a member here so he can perhaps chip in and explain his definitions.

From the FAA Interim Guidance

Unmanned Aircraft: A device used or intended to be used for flight in the air that has no onboard pilot. This includes all classes of airplanes, helicopters, airships, and translational lift aircraft that have no onboard pilot. Unmanned aircraft are understood to include only those aircraft controllable in three axes and therefore, exclude traditional balloons

Here is an excerpt from the Scientific American blog.

What is a "first person view" unmanned aircraft? Is it a drone?

A first-person view (FPV) aircraft has a front-facing video camera and transmits real-time video to an operator on the ground. The operator looks at the image on a computer screen, sees the view as if he or she were sitting in the cockpit, and flies the plane accordingly.

While “UAV” is a general term for (non model aircraft) unmanned aircraft, FPV refers to the subset of such aircraft that are flown by a remote pilot using the image transmitted from an on-board camera. Unmanned aircraft guided exclusively by GPS or on-board computer analysis of imagery are UAVs, but they aren’t first-person view UAVs.

Until now, most FPV aircraft have been operated by the military, using technologies that make it possible to fly the aircraft beyond the line of sight of the pilot. However, use of FPV aircraft in non-military settings is certain to increase with the recent enactment of a new U.S. aviation law that will open U.S. airspace to many types of unmanned aircraft in the coming years. FPV aircraft are likely to be subject to very conservative FAA rules regarding domestic non-line-of-sight operation to minimize potential safety concerns. For example, if the communication link between the pilot and the aircraft fails, then there are obvious challenges involved in bringing the aircraft back to the ground without endangering other aircraft or people on the ground.

Is an FPV aircraft a drone? Under the strictest definition of drone, it isn’t, since it is flown under the control of a human operator. However, when flown beyond the line of sight, an FPV aircraft would be characterized by many people as a drone, despite the significant skill that might be involved in flying it. This is because the definition of drone can be difficult or impossible for an observer to apply. After all, how can someone who sees an unmanned aircraft maneuvering without any evidence of a nearby pilot know whether it is autonomous or remotely piloted? From the observer’s standpoint, it’s not unreasonable to consider it a drone.

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Comment by Rory Paul on April 13, 2012 at 4:58am

As I said he is going to ride the new public interest in UAS all the way. His focus on the word "drone" with its currently less than positive public image just shows how the article is written to produce an emotional response. Personally everything I fly I call a "balloon" and if I say it enough maybe the FAA will believe it as well.   

Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 13, 2012 at 5:14am

I was going to pull this post down as its a bit ranty man, lots of the stuff I am reading at the minute makes me put my head in my hands and tut alot.

The wrong team is driving the UAS tour bus at the minute, its TV's out of hotel windows all around.

Comment by Gene "Crash" Cash on April 13, 2012 at 6:32am
I for one am not giving him the traffic. SA has become almost as bad as Popular Science.

Comment by Jason Short on April 13, 2012 at 8:52am

I'm not so down on the article. I do think 'drone' is a powerful word and UAS means nothing outside of the community or military. I'm shocked at the rise of 'drone' articles lately in popular media and I think the concept of a drone is fascinating to many. It's a mixed bag of positive and apprehensive feelings for laymen, but that's what makes it so compelling. And then people find out they can make their own drone? Most negative feelings go away.


Comment by John Villasenor on April 13, 2012 at 9:27am

Hi Gary,

 I saw your comment you posted on the SciAm comments page, and I responded to it on SciAm site. Below is the response I wrote there.


I am the author of this post and wanted to respond to the comment from sUASNews. First, thanks sUASNews for your comment. With a rapidly advancing technology such as this it's common for terms to remain in flux.

In some sense, it's possible to take a position that anything that's unmanned and flies is a UAV. That could even include, for example, a child's rubber band-powered toy plane.

However, in this post I was referring to the "general" use of the term UAV these days, which typically refers to platforms with a significant degree of sophisticated onboard processing. This is not what you find in traditional model airplanes.

For example, the annual Teal Group UAV report is widely regarded as the authoritative industry report on world UAV activity. As can be seen from the list of "UAV companies" on page 11 of the 2011 report, this does not address model airplane companies.

The first 13 pages of the 2011 report can be downloaded for free from the Teal Group by doing a google search for

teal group 2011 uav forecast

Also, over at DIY Drones, they have the following UAV definition:

"An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV, colloquially known as a "drone") is basically an aerial robot. As we define it, it is capable of both remotely controlled flight (like a regular RC aircraft) and fully-autonomous flight, controlled by sensors, GPS, and onboard computers performing the functions of an autopilot. "

This definition also excludes model aircraft, and in that respect is consistent with my own use of "UAV." However, the DIY Drones definition even goes farther, as it appears to exclude non-autonomous FPV platforms, which I personally think *are* reasonably considered to be UAVs.

This doesn't mean the DIY Drones people don't know what they are talking about; on the contrary; that community includes the world's top drone hobbyists. It just means that in a rapidly evolving technology area, reasonable people can have different views and interpretations of the scope of some terms.

Regarding the comment that privacy concerns posed by UAS are "no more of an issue than the camera in a cell phone hoisted up on a stick", that is a position that is at odds with the view held by most people in the civil liberties community. There are many vantage points available to a UAS that are not available to a cell phone on a stick.

There are so many privacy issues these days, and I would agree that it would be improper to suggest that UAS-related privacy concerns are more important than all the others. But, to deny that UAS will present
new civil liberties challenges at all also isn't a position I'd agree with.

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on April 13, 2012 at 9:59am


I agree, there has been a veritable EXPLOSION of coverage of drone/uavs in the mainstream media over the past ~6 months.  The whole idea of a personal drone is now a "household name".  I think anybody who is even remotely tech-savvy is now aware of the idea.  Further, I think we are on the cusp of an explosion in usage.

Personally, I don't really get too concerned about the semantics of the name, UAS, sUAS, UAV, Drone...  I don't really see what it's that big of a deal what we call them.  I understand that different names bring different connotations to the uninitiated, but that will happen no matter what the media calls them.  If UAS's are used for a bad purpose, the public will get bad perception of them whether or not the media calls them a UAV, UAS or Drone.

Comment by John Villasenor on April 13, 2012 at 10:03am

One more quick comment in response to Gary's statement that

"He completely misses the real definitions of UAS"

Peace . . . I never even used that term in the SciAm article. The term that I did use is "UAV."

Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 13, 2012 at 10:12am

Hi John, I am sorry if my comments were harsh. I feel for those that are trying to do good things with unmanned platforms and the balance of reporting is negative and suspicious. 

Would you ban or investigate kites? They have a similar vantage point to UAS and if its windy enough fly for much longer?

It is an issue that needs to be visited for sure.

How does the manned flight community in the USA deal with privacy concerns?

Comment by John Villasenor on April 13, 2012 at 10:27am

Hi Gary,

  Thanks for your response. I really tried, in this SciAm post, to emphasize some of the amazing and positive things going on with unmanned platforms. For the benefit of those who haven't seen the post itself, I wrote (including a clickable link back to DIYDrones):

"Many drone hobbyists have an extremely high level of expertiseregarding systems for autonomous flight. They use this expertise to merge robotics, sensors, and airframe design in an amazing variety of innovative ways."

"It’s important to recognize the enormous amount of research and innovation that is occurring in the commercial world, the military, and the hobbyist community with respect to autonomous flight."

"Even when autonomous flight does occur, the human element is still very much present but simply shifted in time. Designing systems and methods to successfully allow a computer to control an aircraft is a high art in and of itself. Autonomous flight is made possible by the tremendous amount of human ingenuity invested well in advance of an actual flight."

The above comments are 100% positive, and not at all "negative and suspicious".

I've never suggested that privacy concerns are a reason to "ban" UAVs (or investigative kites!). I don't believe that to the case at all. I do think there will be some privacy challenges that arise, but I'm also very confident that it will all work out and we'll find reasonable solutions.

For your question,  "How does the manned flight community in the USA deal with privacy concerns?", the two key Supreme Court cases regarding privacy of observations from above are:

California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986):  
Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445 (1989):  

Comment by Rory Paul on April 13, 2012 at 1:30pm

So on the one had we as a community show tremendous ingenuity but that dangerous stuff that better be regulated by the Feds even though you admit that it will not keep it out of the hands of terrorists. Straddle the fence long enough your frijoles will start to hurt...stop pandering and pic a side.


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