Drone? UAS? RPV? ROA? UAV? UA? What are they all about?
Drone is an antiquated term that should not be used anymore. It referred to early unmanned aircraft from fifty years ago. These were used for shooting practice by the military or for reconnaissance missions. They all followed simple pre-programmed paths through the air and flew until they ran out of fuel.
The other terms such as RPV (remotely piloted vehicle), ROA (remotely operated aircraft), UAS (unmanned aerial system), and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) are used more or less interchangeably. Technically, they are all referring to unmanned aircraft (UA), which is the preferred term used by the FAA and many other organizations.
I personally prefer the term UAV, which I what I will use for the rest of this article.
RC are UAV Aircraft
What may be very surprising to hear is that RC aircraft fall under the definition of UAV aircraft. This is because the definition used by the FAA for UAVs is very broad. So what is that definition? Basically, a UAV is anything that is flying through the air and is either being piloted by an on-board computer or remotely by a human pilot. The human pilot could be on the ground or in another vehicle.
So to come up with a useful definition for UAVs, we need to look carefully at the AMA definition for RC aircraft. Then we can combine the two and come up with what we are really looking for.
AMA Rules Recap
I have talked before about the AMA Safety Code and the AMA FPV Operations rules. In a nutshell, the flying has to be done for fun, you must maintain visual contact at all times, and the human pilot must be in control of the aircraft at all times.
Having said that, defining an UAV is easy. It is an unmanned aircraft that fails to meet one or more of the AMA RC aircraft conditions. It is an UAV if you are flying for military or commercial purposes, are not maintaining line of sight at all times, OR are not in control at all times.
Another way of looking at this is that if you fly it like an RC airplane, then it probably is one. Otherwise, you are flying an UAV. As I explained before FPV (first person view) flying is really a type of RC flying and falls under the AMA RC rules.
Today, except for very limited exceptions, it is illegal to fly a UAV in the United States. For example, under rare circumstances, it is possible to obtain a special permit to fly a commercial UAV. UAVs are also now allowed to be used by emergency and police forces.
The FAA has announced that they will be easing the restrictions on commercial UAVs within a couple of years. We do not know yet exactly what this will mean. As the situation develops, look to RCadvisor.com for clear explanations of the rules as they affect you.