The development of any new technology inevitably brings with it a variety of new terms, definitions, classifications, categories, etc., and drone technology is far from exempt from this common trend. This burgeoning new market has seen an explosion in terminologies, which can be quite confusing to navigate through and translate. Given the context of this blog, these drone talk explanations have been created with emergency response personnel in mind, to aid their efforts at comprehending this new technology for their use cases. The vast variation in drone terms combined with the already acronym-prolific Emergency Service vernacularism creates a linguistic nightmare. With this in mind, the objective of this blog post is to hopefully offer some clarity to the language used in the world of drones, so that first responders can focus solely on their own complex language rather than both.


Over the past few years, the terms “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” or “UAV”, and “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” or “RPA” have both become common lexicon within the industry.

However, much to the industry’s dismay, UAVs/RPAs are more widely renowned by their colloquial name of “drones”. This term could be simply attributed to these devices’ simple, repetitive nature. Conversely, Mike Rickett, the Deputy Senior Vice-President at SELEX ES, gave a different view on how this term came into vogue. During his presentation at The Commercial UAV Show 2014, Rickett claimed that this term derived from the military UAV, The Queen Bee, where he smugly explained, “Although, ironically, drones are male bees, not females”. (Rickett, 2014) The Queen Bee was extremely successful during 1935, with some impressive features for its time; a 300 mile range, 100 mph speed, 17,000ft ceiling, to name a few. The derogative nature of the word “drones” derives from the type of missions The Queen Bee was built for. In short, it was a killing machine. Four hundred of these hunter-killers were produced resulting in a prodigious amount of destruction. The repercussions of The Queen Bee are still a major hindrance for the commercial sector because UAVs/RPAs have since become synonymous with this role. The sector’s long opposed use of this term was exemplified during a UAV/RPA industry convention held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, with the not-so-subtle WiFi password: “DontSayDrones”. (Wolfgang, 2013)

Queen Bee Military Drone
De Havilland DH82B “Queen Bee” Source: Aerospace Museum San Diego

In most cases, UAV/RPA can only be operated as part of a system, ergo the terms “Unmanned Aerial System” or “UAS” and “Remotely Piloted Aircraft System” or “RPAS” have become widely utilised. The terms UAS or RPAS emphasises the importance of other elements’ involvement beyond the aircraft itself. A typical UAS/RPAS consists of a UAV/RPA, a remote pilot station – also known as a Ground Control Station (GCS), and the command and control (C2) communication links that join. The “RPAS” acronym has become the favoured term amongst European aviation authorities as the term “unmanned” can be misconceiving; legally speaking, the RPAS must always remain “manned”; whereas UAS or UAV is strongly favoured in American countries; yet “drone” appears to be almost universally understood. I personally feel that the best form of communication is through words that the majority will understand. Thus, while I appreciate the detrimental effects that the word “drone” has had upon this industry, I will reluctantly continue with the “drone” reference for maximum comprehension.

Despite a proliferation of terms, the definition remains relatively similar across all materials. A drone can be defined as “a powered aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator. It is designed to be recoverable, and can either fly autonomously or be remotely controlled.” (Marketline, 2014)


A distinct dichotomy has formed in drone control classifications; namely between “remotely piloted” and “autonomous” aircrafts. Remotely piloted are somewhat self-explanatory with autonomous vehicles defined as “an unmanned aircraft that does not allow pilot intervention in the management of the flight”. (ICAO, 2011) However, a combination of the two is becoming an increasingly ubiquitous axiom. The military distinguish this category as “man on the loop” systems – as opposed to “man out the loop” systems – whereby the aircraft is capable of taking off, landing, and flying itself but with human supervision and intervention where necessary.

Drone Flight Control

Notably, navigating through a set of specified waypoints on its own is often regarded as autonomy, however these capabilities are more in the realm of autopilot. An analogical example being the difference between cruise control and a self-driving car. Hence autonomy, despite popular belief, is far from feasible at present – not to mention completely illegal.


There are two main categories of drone: fixed wing and multi-rotor. There are further variations such as hybrids; however, discussing all airframe types falls outside the scope of this blog post, due to the sheer length of discussion that would be required! Instead, just these two key types will be discussed at this point.

Fixed Wing Drone:

Fixed Wing Drone: eBee

Generally speaking fixed wing drones have the following characteristics:

  • Fixed wing drones have solid aerofoils and will depend on moving through the air to generate the required lift to remain airborne;
  • Require a means of propulsion, which may be an electric or internal combustion engine driving a propeller, or a jet engine; and
  • Range in size from tiny, hand-held electrics to 737-size jets.

(NSARC, 2016)

Multi-Rotor Drone:

Multi-rotor Drone DJI Phantom

Multi-rotor drones have the following general characteristics:

  • Use multiple spinning propellers to generate lift, independent of airframe movement; and
  • Have the ability to hover – remain motionless – over a target area.

(NSARC, 2016)


An Emergency Service drone is likely to be a tactical, organic asset that will travel with response staff and thus is immediately available and used on demand. This is in contrast to what the Emergency Services currently use for aerial assistance – a strategic asset, such as a Coastguard helicopter, which is deployed and tasked by an agency that then passes and filters information to the tactical teams as it becomes available. This current paradigm does not provide tactical teams with immediate aerial assistance and waiting for that higher height of eye advantage could result in a loss of life, thus forcing response teams to pursue the task without the invaluable situational awareness that an aerial vehicle can offer. Therefore, in my informed opinion, emergency response drones would be classified as a tactical, organic asset.

Heli and Drones


Drones vary widely in size, from the Global Hawk with a “wingspan as large as that of a Boeing 737” to nano drones that have been designed to fit down pipes for inspection. (Casos, 2010, p.20) The image below shows how the United States’ Department of Defence categorise drone sizes.

US Drone Size Categories
Source: UAS SAR Addendum to the National SAR Supplement to the International Aeronautical and Maritime SAR Manual, NSARC

Unfortunately different countries and industries have various ways of grouping drone sizes. Mike Rickett, the Deputy Senior Vice-President at SELEX ES, outlined the following categories as being the main three groups of drones:

Drone Size Categories
Mike Rickett’s Categorisation of Drone Sizes

Notably, it is a longer and more costly process to receive permission to fly a drone over 7Kg in the UK, plus for drones weighing over 20kg the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) would need to assess it on a case-by-case basis – again, very time consuming. Therefore, the altitude and range – as depicted in the categorisation above – is less important than the drone’s weight; Emergency Services tend to utilise drones sub 7Kg for an easier route to Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO). As such, a categorisation based on weight is more appropriate for Emergency Services than Rickett’s version.

Despite the proliferation of terms and categorisations discussed, I hope that this blog post goes some way towards bringing clarification to the complex language of drones.

If you have anything to add or questions to ask or recommendations for future research blog posts, please don’t hesitate to use the comment section below. AND don’t forget to email subscribe, so you’re always up-to-date with the world of SAR drones!


Casos, D. G., 2010. Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Strengths and Weaknesses [online]. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

ICAO, 2011. ICAO Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), Circular 328 [online]. N/A: Blyenburgh &Co.

MarketLine, 2014. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles The economic case for drones [online]. N/A: MarketLine. ML000017-024.

NSARC, 2016. Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Search and Rescue Addendum to the National Search and Rescue Supplement to the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual Version 1.0. USA: NSARC.

Rickett, M., 2014. The Then, The Now and The What Could Be [PowerPoint]. London: The Commercial UAV Show 2014. Unpublished.

Wolfgang, B., 2013. Drone industry gives journalists not-so-subtle hint – don’t use the word ‘drones’ [online]. Available from: [Accessed 06 July 2017]. Washington: The Washington Times.


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