How do you define a drone? What’s the difference between an RQ-9 Reaper and a quadrotor? Your pressing drone questions, answered
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…..
Inform yourself, so you can inform others. Why grow alone?