• Drone Technology
  • Drones

Drones, UAVs, or Robots – Are We Using the Correct Term?

Christian Albertson
May 20, 2021


In aviation, the term drone has become synonymous with any aircraft that flies without a human onboard. This term is used for a small quadcopter-type aircraft that fits in the palm of your hand all the way up to military aircraft the size of a jet fighter. 

Whether controlled by someone with a handheld device or via a virtual cockpit from thousands of miles away, these aircraft fall under the same classification of drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). If you add in the human who is controlling the aircraft and the infrastructure needed to power the aircraft, it is called an unmanned aerial system (UAS). Add technology intended to pilot the aircraft either with minimal or no human intervention, make this aircraft smart enough to complete a task without requiring a human to control every move it makes, and the aircraft is still called a drone. 

Undefined Flying Object?

With many of these aircraft having evolved past the definition of drone, we are in a new generation of the technology. These evolved aircraft are mostly autonomous and can complete a given task with little human intervention. Drones like these have a designated, programmed task that they complete without question and then ready themselves for the next task. Isn’t this a robot? Merriam-Webster has many definitions for the word robot, one of which is “a device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks.” But the term robot does not quite fit either. When most people hear that term, they think of science fiction movies or the whirring machines that work in factories putting together a never-ending line of automobiles. These aircraft represent something new.  

Currently, drones are classified by weight, cost, altitude, and endurance, but none of these categories take into consideration the technology in the aircraft. When it comes to military aircraft, specifically fighter aircraft, we refer to classes of aircraft by generation. For instance, the F-15 Eagle is considered a fourth-generation fighter, while the F-22 Raptor is considered a fifth-generation aircraft. The difference, in simple terms, is that the F-22 represents a major leap in technology from the previous generation. 

In the automobile industry, the movement toward automated vehicles is heading down a similar path. Generations of automation are defined by levels with Level 1 involving basic driver assistance features and Level 5 being fully automated. But much like the aviation drone industry, the vehicle market uses confusing terminology, e.g., automated versus self-driving versus autonomous.

Could We Classify Drones by Technology? 

Generation 1 drones could be classified as any aircraft that is not capable of being flown beyond the line of sight, meaning anything the pilot must always have their eyes on. This classification could refer to small aircraft used for recreation, photography, or similar uses. Generation 2 drones would be anything that is flown beyond the line of sight, whether it be a few miles or a few thousand miles, but would still require a pilot to be in control. Generation 3 drones would be those that can operate autonomously. These aircraft do not require a pilot to operate—only an observer to monitor the flight and make sure the aircraft completes the mission and returns to a base, or a human on each end of the operation to remove payloads and charge batteries. With all the possible ways to name these aircraft—robotic air vehicle, automated aerial vehicle, or even robotic air transport—I vote we use a system that already works and define the evolving classes of aircraft by generation.