Drone, UAV, UAS ... what do we call that unmanned flyin' thing, anyway?

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

I'm hearing a lot of different names lately for unmanned aircraft. The mainstream media seems to like the word "drone " to describe the kind of sophisticated pilotless aircraft able to find and attack elusive targets in rugged terrain. Many in the trade press use "unmanned aerial system ," or UAS , to describe pilotless aircraft. At Military & Aerospace Electronics , we tend to use "unmanned aerial vehicle ," or UAV.

So what's in a name? To the unbiased, perhaps not much, but I've been covering the developing UAV industry for a long time now, and to me, there are some subtle yet substantial differences.

The biggest problem I have is with the use of the word drone to describe today's advanced-technology UAVs. To me, drone describes a remotely operated aircraft, often used for tracking and target practice, and has no role in describing UAV technology that often as not can operate autonomously. We used to call these kinds of flying targets "remotely piloted vehicles ," or RPVs -- a term I haven't seen or heard in several years.

I remember visiting China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest, Calif., back in the early '80s, and saw old Air Force North American F-86 Sabre jet fighters flying around the area. I couldn't figure that one out; F-86s gained fame in the Korean War in the early 1950s during dogfights in famed Mig Alley. These aircraft were hopelessly obsolete even 30 years ago when I was visiting China Lake.

The people there told me those F-86s I saw in the sky had no pilots in them, but instead were remotely operated -- much like a radio-controlled model plane. Navy fighter pilots in what were new aircraft like the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter used those remote-control F-86s to practice locking weapons on target during air combat maneuvering exercised. Occasionally, I heard, they used to blow those remote-control F-86s out of the sky, but I never saw them do it.

My point is, the word drone describes something simple and unsophisticated, and has no place describing today's UAVs.

Now for the term UAS. I know the Pentagon loves this term, and its officials are encouraging everyone to use it when describing advanced unmanned aircraft. My reasons for not using it are selfish and simple. The term UAV gets about a million searches on Google every month. UAS gets about half that.

I want Google to sweep as many readers to the Military & Aerospace Electronics Website at www.militaryaerospace.com as possible, and I'll continue using UAV for as long as it draws the most online search traffic.

I'll keep an eye on it, though. The minute that UAS gets more search traffic than UAV is when you'll see UAS through the online and print pages of Military & Aerospace Electronics. We'll see how well -- and how soon -- the Pentagon's UAS campaign pays off.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12

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