Decoding the Acronyms: Essential Drone Terms for Beginners

As you start learning about drones, you might find yourself lost among unfamiliar terms. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Drones themselves go by many names, from UAV to RPA, and even the drone industry is still struggling to reach a consensus about which name it likes best.

But every new hobby comes with a list of specialized terms, and learning these words is part of the excitement of immersing yourself in a new world. In this article, we’ll go over some of the basics. Getting familiar with drone terminology is the first step towards finding the right drone for you.

Synonyms for Drones

The word drone has a pretty interesting history on its own. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer told the Wall Street Journal that it originated in 1935, when the U.S. Navy developed unmanned aircrafts for target practice. The British Navy already had a similar aircraft, which they called the Queen Bee, so the U.S. Navy decided to continue the trend by naming theirs after male bees, or “drones.”

Even though “drone” is still used in reference to military aircraft, it’s also the most commonly used term used to describe hobby- or commercial-grade aircraft. But many other terms are used when referencing drones, here are a few of the most common synonyms:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Congress use the term unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in official documents. The FAA defines a UAS as an “aircraft without a human pilot onboard — instead, the UAS is controlled from an operator on the ground.”

Similar terms include small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Critics of these terms argue that the word “unmanned” is misleading, since all of these crafts are controlled by a human, which is why some might prefer the phrase remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), which emphasizes the person controlling the flight.

When you register your drone with the FAA, you’ll also see the terms model aircraft and non-model aircraft, two more names that reference drones. In this case, the distinction is simply how you intend to use the drone. If you fly solely for recreational purposes, create an account for a model aircraft; if you intend to fly for commercial purposes, create an account for non-model aircraft.

Binding and flying

Once you’re ready to buy a drone, keep in mind that you can buy them in various states of completeness. Ready-to-fly (RTF) drones come fully equipped and pre-assembled, and as the name implies, they’re ready-to-fly right out of the box.

Bind-and-fly (BNF) drones are only missing a transmitter / controller. You can use the controller of your choice as long as it’s able to bind with the drone, which means to set up communication between the controller and the drone. Almost-ready-to-fly (ARTF) drones require assembly and may not come with a transmitter.

You might also see a bunch of words ending in -copter, including quadcopter, octocopter, and multicopter. These refer to the number of rotors, or propellers, the craft has. (You can remember that octocopters are the eight-armed drones that look like flying spiders.)

An orange quadcopter drone hovering in front of a beautiful ocean sunset.

When researching drones, you might see a bunch of words ending in -copter, including quadcopter, octocopter, and multicopter. Here’s a photo of a quadcopter, which is a reference to the number of rotors (four) that the drone has.

 

No matter what name it goes by, each drone moves in several different ways. Yaw refers to movement around a central axis. Imagine looking at a drone from above and determining whether it’s rotating in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. That’s the yaw. Pitch refers to its movement up and down along a vertical plane, and roll to its movement along a horizontal plane: forward, back, left, and right.

Finding the right drone for you

Drones also come in different grades according to their capability: toy grade, hobby grade, and professional grade. These categories are pretty broadly defined, but here are a few fundamental features that can help you determine which type of drone is best for you:

Flight times: Toy drones typically have flight times of 5-7 minutes. With the top professional drones, you should expect flight times of 20-25 minutes.

Camera: Most toy drones are meant to be flown indoors and don’t come with a camera. On the more professional end, you can expect to see high quality, 4k cameras, that are capable of capturing professional grade photos and video.

Gimbal: The drone carries a camera on a gimbal, or camera mount. Gimbals are used to stabilize the camera and reduce vibration, which plays a major role in the quality of your aerial imagery. Toy drones won’t have a gimbal. Professional grade drones typically come with a 3-axis gimbal, which allows you to move the camera in three different directions (forwards / backwards, left / right, up / down).

Replacement parts: Professional grade drones typically come with opportunities to buy propellers, spare batteries, prop guards, and other accessories. With most toy and hobby drones, you won’t have the ability to purchase parts à la carte.

GPS / location: Professional drones have GPS and GLONASS capabilities, which are two satellite-based navigation systems that help reduce flyaways, provide a more stable flight experience, and give you the ability to utilize autopilot features.

The bottom line

Your drone may come with more vocabulary words than it does features, but with a dictionary and a bit of practice, you’ll be fluent in no time and more prepared to find the right drone for you.