Drones are at the center of the new Independent Lens film National Bird (which premieres on PBS Monday, May 1 at 10; check local listings), though the documentary puts a very human face behind military drone operations, focusing on the post-traumatic stress stemming from participating in remote warfare.

But for a word that comes up so often these days, do we all know what a drone actually is? From discussions of controversial military programs to talking about package delivery and aerial photography, it seems to have become an all-encompassing word describing both innocuous and dangerous pursuits.

Like it or not, drones are a part of our lives and our world now, so having a deeper understanding of drones is useful. Here’s a look at the different types of drones, what they are capable of, and what else they may be called.

No, But Seriously, What Is a Drone?

Drones can be anything from basically a toy, remote-controlled helicopter piloted by a child to a $100+ million Global Hawk flown by the US military, but we’ll try to narrow it down a bit more.

As you’ll see in this very useful video (from a manned and remote flight group called FliteTest), exploring “What Is a Drone?” with several experts and hobbyists, opinions on even that simple question vary fairly widely. Some of those polled think drones cannot possibly be piloted without a human controlling it, while someone else thinks they can operate autonomously. (Which for some can bring up visions of a sci-fi movie future but if any drones are reading this I for one welcome our new robot overlords.) 

Both military and commercial drones are used for surveillance, but after that they diverge quite a bit. Here are the different types of drones (or what we commonly and generally call “drones”:)

Military/UAVs

The military would prefer you call their drones Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (or UAV). You also may hear the term UAS, or Unmanned Aerial System, which is a more all-encompassing term that includes the aircraft or the UAV, plus the ground-based controller (the person operating the machine), and the system of communications connecting the two.

In a sense, unmanned aerial vehicles used for military purposes are not especially new; in fact, one could stretch it to consider balloons containing bombs dropped on the enemy in the mid-19th century to be an early kind of drone, and then unmanned aircraft and weapons became increasingly sophisticated throughout the 20th century, including even in WWII (where the Fairchild BQ-3 was tested by the US Army but considered not effective or useful enough). But the technology at use today is remarkably advanced, using robotics and remote control to pilot what are essentially unmanned airplanes of various weights and sizes, reaching new heights literally and figuratively. And of course, unlike commercial drones, some military drones are used to drop bombs on targets, often human, far below. 

Fairchild BQ-3, one of the first unmanned drone planes
Fairchild BQ-3, one of the first unmanned drone planes

From the BBC:

To the military, they are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems). However, they are more commonly known as drones. Drones are used in situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult. They provide troops with a 24-hour “eye in the sky”, seven days a week. Each aircraft can stay aloft for up to 17 hours at a time, loitering over an area and sending back real-time imagery of activities on the ground.

Those used by the United States Air Force and Royal Air Force range from small intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance craft, some light enough to be launched by hand, to medium-sized armed drones and large spy planes.

On the other hand, Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), thinks you really should call them drones.

Representatives of the drone industry and other drone boosters often make a point of saying they don’t like to use the word “drones.” When my colleague Catherine Crump and I were writing our drones report in 2011, we talked over what terminology we should use, and decided that since our job was to communicate, we should use the term that people would most clearly and directly understand. That word is “drones.”

Drone proponents would prefer that everyone use the term “UAV,” for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or “UAS,” for Unmanned Aerial System (“system” in order to encompass the entirety of the vehicle that flies, the ground-based controller, and the communications connection that connects the two). These acronyms are technical, bland, and bureaucratic. That’s probably their principal advantage from the point of view of those who want to separate them from the ugly, bloody, and controversial uses to which they’ve been put by the CIA and U.S. military overseas.

Even military drones can be quite small. As this PopSci summary points out, one of the smallest is also one of the most frequently utilized: the RQ-11 Raven “weighs 4 pounds, is launched with a throw, and is piloted with a hand-held unit that resembles a video-game controller. The Raven isn’t the most iconic military drone, but it is probably the most used: more than 19,000 have been built. It’s mainly useful for seeing around corners and sending footage of rooftops back to troops moving through a city. It also looks like an awkward model airplane, and it breaks apart like LEGOs when it lands.” (As you can see here:)

Private/Consumer Drones

Privately-owned drones are generally remote controlled aerial cameras, either used by photographers and amateur filmmakers or more professionally for films. In fact, aerial drone cameras were used to photograph some of the eerie overhead footage seen in National Bird.

How many are out there these days? The New York Times‘ “Field Guide to Drones” estimates, by way of the lobbying group the Consumer Technology Association, that drone unit sales and revenues would double in 2016. The group expected 2.8 million consumer drones to be sold in the United States that year, and revenue to reach $953 million. Globally, sales of drones are projected to reach 9.4 million units in 2016 and revenue is expected to reach $3 billion.

Just to take a moment to revel in the potential of drones for cinematography, here’s a montage of films from some of the top drone artists, entered in the New York City Drone Film Festival last  year:

While the possibilities for amazing photography are seemingly endless, privacy and security concerns have been raised by many over the past few years given potential breaches with these flying cameras. Those worries came to a head a couple of years ago when a private drone crashed on White House property. This CBS piece uses that incident as a touching-off point to examine the larger question of threats posed by small flying drones:

Delivery Drones

While you’ve no doubt heard a lot of talk about delivery drones, you likely haven’t actually seen one, and wondered if they even exist.  They do indeed exist, but have been hyped up more than they’ve actually been put to use, due to logistical worries. They tend to work better in areas where there is less population and structure density, and at least for the next few years industry analysts think they will account for a very small percentage of commercial drone usage.

Regulations

The FAA in the US implemented new relaxed regulations about commercial drone use (for better or for worse):

Commercial drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, fly up to a maximum of 400 feet in altitude, at a speed of no more than 100 miles per hour, and can only be operated during daytime and up to 30 minutes before sunrise and after sunset, according to the FAA rules. Drone operators must also qualify for flying certificates and be at least 16 years old.

Previously, drone operators had to apply for special waivers from the FAA—a time-consuming and pricey process—to use UAVs for business. …

The new rules will allow drones to be put to work in construction, surveying, agriculture, firefighting, search and rescue, conservation, academic research, film and video production and countless other fields that will benefit from an affordable aerial perspective, DJI said in a Friday press release.

Operators still need to apply for waivers if they seek to fly drones at night, above 400 feet and in other specific types of operations, the FAA noted.

How far can they fly?

Military drones can fly upwards of 65,000ft covering over 280,000 square miles, though that is for the Global Observer Stratospheric Persistent UAS, which is a more extreme example. 

Personal drones also vary widely; there have been remote-controlled planes that have flown for more than 1,000 miles, but the typical quadcopter with mini-camera generally can only last 15-30 minutes in the air, due to battery limitations. A very popular consumer quadcopter drone, the DJI Phantom 3, supposedly has a transmitter range of about 1-3 miles, possibly more if an extended antenna is added. 

Future Trends?

If you’re feeling left out while your private drone flies around above you, leaving you low and dry, now there’s a drone with room for a passenger. Built by Chinese company Ehang and debuted at least in demonstration form in 2016, the single-passenger Ehang 184 is powered by batteries and capable of traveling for about 20 miles. 

The electric-powered drone can be fully charged in two hours, carry up to 100kg (220lb) and fly for 23 minutes at sea level, according to Ehang. The cabin fits one person and a small backpack and is fitted with air conditioning and a reading light. It is designed to fit, with propellers folded, in a single parking spot. Passengers in this model would not have ability to take over control if needed (what could possibly go wrong?) 

But if you’re curious and can make it to Dubai this summer, they’ll be showcasing these new passenger drones for the public in an aerial display in which presumably passengers will actually be inside the drone. They are improving the technology as we speak. Via Engadget:

The AP reports the PFV now has a half-hour flight time with about 31 miles of range, but passenger capacity is still limited to one 260-pound person and single small suitcase. Since the vehicle is autonomous, the passenger only needs to punch in their destination and strap in before take-off. From there, the 184 will communicate via 4G wireless network with a control room on the ground similar to the one EHang showed Engadget late last year.

We may wait til the technology is truly perfected for this one before giving it a whirl.