From remote control planes and drones all the way up to passenger-plane-sized military or research aircraft, there are many different types of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, used for a variety of purposes today. These vehicles are guided by input from remote controllers or transmitters, distant pilots or systems relying on satellites to transmit flight plans and even pre-programmed functions. The one factor that every UAV has in common is that it travels through the air without the presence of a human pilot on board.

The development of strategic unmanned aircraft dates back to the early twentieth century, but there are more options up in the air today than ever before. While model airplane hobbyists have been building and flying RC planes for decades, the devices commonly called “drones” have recently skyrocketed in popularity. Consumer drones are revolutionizing expectations for the capabilities—both in terms of performance and quality—of unmanned flight. The general consensus among aviation, legal, and technology experts is that all drones are unmanned vehicles, but not all unmanned vehicles are drones. These distinctions give rise to a number of considerations regarding the definition of this increasingly common term.

What Is a UAV?

In the most general sense, UAVs are vehicles that fly without a pilot manning any controls situated within the vehicle. “Drone” has recently become a popular name for consumer aerial vehicles, but the term originates in military technologies. From autonomous submarines to passenger-sized planes, there are many types of drones capable of performing functions that extend far beyond the civilian pursuits of learning how to manually control the flight of a compact vehicle, capture still or moving images, or achieve freestyle stunts and racing victories.

The increasing popularity of consumer drones in recent years has sparked debate among aviation, legal, and technology experts over the finer points of this categorization, particularly as it applies to regulation. The most accepted distinction falls between remote-controlled crafts that must be operated manually at all times and devices that are capable of achieving some level of autonomous flight, even for a limited duration of time or restricted to a range of certain programmed functions.

UAVs Versus Drones

Devices like RC planes or helicopters and drones bound to remote controller transmitters are unmanned devices, regardless of what—if any—degree of autonomous flight they can achieve. They share the characteristic of not being controlled from within by a human pilot. Any internal processing or inputs are achieved by a flight controller or onboard processor. In general, the autonomous or pre-programmed modes on these vehicles are designed to aid or support manual control and make these vehicles easier for a remote human pilot to fly or harder for them to lose.

Semi-autonomous modes are often intended to make these vehicles follow established routes or routines. Some RC aircraft feature a panic mode that can help the aircraft maintain altitude or achieve stabilization, but this mode is intended to assist a remote human pilot rather than allow the plane to follow a path determined through the analysis of telemetry data or even a pre-set path. An increasing number of drones not only stabilize altitude autonomously but avoid obstacles by relying on a 3D camera and sensors to observe surroundings and prevent collisions by either dodging or stopping. Some drones also offer options to orbit a person or object or return to their launch site. Most of these functions have to be enabled or programmed, and the onboard processor is only tasked with executing these flight plans.

Recent UAV Developments

Some higher-end drones offer a wide range of autonomous features or modes. These devices can follow an object or person relying on a combination of GPS and optical recognition, fly in plotted straight or curved lines, or travel to waypoints or pre-set locations while adhering to specifications including speed and altitude. Drones equipped with cameras can be used to capture still images or motion footage in most of these modes. Other semi-autonomous modes that are often used for image capture include selfie or orbit modes. The extent to which any of these modes is fully autonomous is open to debate, but it is clear that the execution of these flight programs is achieved by the flight controller located inside of the more technologically advanced consumer drones available on the market.

A return to home mode could arguably be more autonomous, particularly if the on-board flight controller enacts this function upon sensing its own low battery status. The return path in this mode can be more or less precise depending on whether the drone travels in headless mode and essentially executes a fly back command or relies on GPS data to return to a precise launch point. All of these developments are steps toward vehicles that are not only unmanned but autonomous, a combination of features that has caused these UAVs to be referred to as drones.

Where To Buy a UAV

Model airplane enthusiasts have built communities around hobby shops and flying fields for decades. Some of the same hobby shops that stock plane parts and supplies also carry drones and components for these newer types of unmanned vehicles. There are many online stores and communities dedicated to specific types or even brands of aerial vehicles. All of these vendors and resources make it easier than ever before to compare different vehicles and determine which type best suits your abilities and interests.

In many cases, you can buy a drone or even a RC plane in a ready-to-fly or RTF kit. You may also be able to find kits that require a separate remote controller or transmitter or other components, allowing for a greater degree of customization. More experienced hobbyists can build aerial vehicles themselves, choosing all of the parts, planning the design, and even deciding on the best options for transmitters and receivers.

Some remote controllers or transmitters feature different modes to allow you to use the same controller for more than one vehicle as well as a number of channels that you can link to different switches or knobs in order to fine-tune the controls for each craft. There are also a variety of possibilities for programming drones with proprietary or open-source autopilot development interfaces or mission planning software, and user communities growing around these resources.

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UAV Enthusiasts Unite

If you are interested in learning more about these technological developments or joining up with a group of hobbyists, there are numerous UAV communities online and offline clubs. These groups are dedicated to the development and refinement of flying technologies. It can be useful to have a group of pilots and builders who can help you resolve problems with a drone, plane, or other aerial vehicle projects. You can also learn a great deal about different brands and types of UAVs from connecting with these enthusiasts and benefitting from their collective experience and insights.

Online forums can be useful when it comes to comparing different products, seeing builds that work or achieve different goals, reviewing commentary on failed attempts, and generally learning from the experiences of other people all over the world. Some forums make it possible to buy vehicles or parts from other enthusiasts. It is important to carefully assess these offers. If you are new to flying, you may find it helpful to make purchases from manufacturers or reputable retailers. As you become more familiar with these vehicles, you may have a clearer idea of which designs and parts to use to achieve the desired performance and whether a user online is accurately representing a model or component.

In addition to vendors of consumer devices and the creators and users of development tools, there are many internet communities that discuss and speculate about military or other specialized unmanned vehicles. These conversations usually do not involve classified information but consider the boundaries of UAV development and the possible uses for these vehicles. Non-commercial UAVs are often controlled remotely at great distances and can be used to explore locations that are too dangerous for humans, in rescue missions or for delivering humanitarian aid to disaster sites, and for other cutting-edge research or tactical purposes.

The Future of UAVs

Many UAV enthusiasts are interested in the possibilities posed by many different types of flying crafts. Some of the most interesting developments with these vehicles are taking place in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning. These innovations mirror technologies that are being implemented on a smaller and less critical scale in consumer aerial vehicles. These features are often the subject of debate when it comes to conversations about regulating consumer devices or the ethical implications of using these types of technologies in warfare.

The controversy surrounding UAVs stems primarily from the fact that these types of vehicles are only likely to become more common in the future. Recent technological developments and innovations in design and programming are opening the horizon to limitless applications in the civilian, military, and research sectors. An expanding consumer market and a growing base of builders and tinkerers indicate that the pace of innovation will only increase.

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