Types of Drones and Term Glossary

Definitive UAV Guide in 2021

types-of-drones-and-glossary

Whether you're looking for learning the basics of what drones are or if there's any difference between the terms drone, UAV, or quadcopter, this video is the perfect place to start.

If you're instead just looking to buy a drone, you can check my top cheap drones sorted by price

Drone definition
(What is a UAV?)

In aviation and in space, a drone refers to an unpiloted aircraft or spacecraft, another very popular name for it is UAV, also known as "unmanned aerial vehicle".

Other names for the common drone would include RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) or SUAS (Small unmanned Aircraft system).

Table of Contents

Drone Terminology Glossary

drone terminology

In this section I’m going over the main drone terms you might stumble upon and what you need to know to be a successful pilot. This list will include some FAA terminology that is absolutely necessary for any test anywhere in the world.

 

After this section, we’ll go more in depth for some of the terms on this list, including some of the drone acronyms and even help you pick the best drone for your money.

A

Accelerometer

Measures the acceleration of the drone in a specific direction. Allows the drone to maintain orientation. Used to stabilized quadcopters.

Aerial Photography

A type of photography where drones with mounted cameras are used to capture images and video footage from a height. 

Altitude Hold function

A function of most drones using an onboard barometer. Allows the drone to steadily hover in the air at a specific height.

ARF

 Almost Ready to Fly. These types of drone packages usually do not come without a transmitter. May require assembly.

Autopilot

A functionality of most drones to maintain flight without human intervention usually using a pre-defined GPS path or coordinates.

Autonomous Flight

Some UAV’s are controlled by pre-set internal programming containing instructions or paths using the built-in GPS system.

Axis

A plan of flight. Most drones, typically quadcopters, have four-axis controls. High-end types have more than six-axis controls.

B

Barometric Pressure Sensor

Measures barometric readings to detect the altitude of the drone. Helps drones calculate their height from the ground.

Binding

Process of making the drone communicate with the controller or the transmitter.

BNF

Bind-N-Fly. The drone unit is ready to bind to the controller and fly.

Brushless Motor

A type of drone motor with permanent magnets that rotate around an armature. Eliminates potential issues associated with motors with moving parts. Considered more efficient and resilient than other types of motors. 

Build

 A drone unit that was built and assembled at home.

BVLOS

Beyond Visual Line of Sight. Term used by the FAA and new european guidelines.

C

Camera gimbal

A mechanism that holds third-party cameras on drones. Has the ability to tilt and swerve using servos. Strong enough to support large DSLR cameras.

Camera drone

A drone equipped with a camera for taking videos and photos with a unique perspective.

CF

Carbon Fiber. A type of composite material typically used for racing drones. Popular for its durability and strength.

Cleanflight

A software that will allow you to configure your drone using a graphical user interface. 

Commercial flight

The act of flying a drone for money-making purposes. Depending on the area or country, it is limited to certain licenses such as a Remote Pilot Certificate by FAA regulations. 

Controller

 A device that is used to control the drone, usually handheld. Also called radio or transmitter. 

D, E

Drone

a type of aircraft that does not require a human pilot onboard; typically controlled using a remote control or onboard computer. See unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)

Drone Racing League, The (DRL)

a professional drone racing league that holds and operates international drone races.

Electronic Speed Control (ESC)

A device that connects the RC receiver and the main battery. It controls the aircraft’s motor.

F

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Part of the US Department of Transportation Agency that regulates and oversees all civil aviation in the country.

Fail-Safe

A functionality that protects a drone in cases of errors such as losing the signal from the remote control and the ability to come back to its take-off location.

First Person View (FPV)

A functionality where the drone operator can view live footage from the drone in realtime usually through VR goggles or a screen of smartphone or tablet.

Firmware

A type of program that is loaded into microprocessors’s non-volatile memory. For example, it determines what the autopilot does. 

Flight Control System

A network or system of interconnected controllers that allow the pilot to control the drone.

Fly Away

An unintentional flight outside the boundaries of control due to failure in the onboard system or control device, sometimes both.

Fly-Away Protection System

A functionality that will automatically return the drone to the surface or within the control boundaries. 

FPV camera

A specially-made camera for the first-person view capabilities of the drone. Typically found in racing drones or camera drones.

FPV goggles

A special type of goggles that is used to view a live feed from the drone’s camera in real-time.

FPV Racing

An emerging sport where special types of drones, usually small racing UAVs, race around a predetermined track.

Frequency

A specific frequency that is used by FPV equipment. Usually brand specific. There are multiple frequency channels available especially during drone racing events so pilots do not interfere with each other. 

G

Geofencing

A virtual geographic boundary created using GPS technology which allows specific control software to respond when a drone flies within the area

Gimbal

A special camera mount that allows movement such as tilts and swerves using servos. It allows stable camera footage regardless of the drone’s movements resulting in sharp and smooth images or videos

Geographic Information System (GIS)

A system created to collect, store, analyze, manage, and display geographic or spatial data. 

GoPro

A popular brand of high-definition camera usually used in high-action photography and videography. These cameras are usually lightweight, compact, and waterproof. Additionally, they can be mounted on moving craft or wearable devices.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

A system that tracks and identifies the position of an object with respect to the global spatial plane. Usually used to track the movement or hold the position of a drone. 

Ground Control Station (GCS)

A program that runs on the ground control which receives telemetry data from a UAV. The data usually includes video and sensor information. It can also be used to transmit commands to the drone in flight.

Gyroscope

Also called a gyro. A device that measures the rotation of the drone and allows the craft to maintain a correct balanced with respect to roll, pitch, and yaw. It also allows the drone to maintain the right orientation of the drone during its flight. Most quadcopters have a triple-axis gyroscope. 

H

Head tracking

A function of some VR goggles that maneuvers the drone’s camera angles during its flight by moving the wearer’s head up and down or sideways.

Headless Mode

The drone will follow your control stick’s movement regardless of the position of the drone’s front end. See IOC.

Hexacopter

A drone with six propellers.

Hobby drone

A mid-sized drone for beginner hobbyists; typically with built-in cameras or can carry payloads.

Hobby Grade

 A step above toy grade drones. These types of quadcopters are reliable at a reasonable price. Examples are Syma X8G and MJX Bugs.

I, J

Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU)

A type of controller that combines a gyro and an accelerometer which enhances the stability and orientation of the drone.

Inertial Navigation System (INS)

A method of calculating the position of the drone that is based on the initial GPS data. It is usually complemented with readings from the motion and speed sensors. The data is useful when the drone loses GPS signal.

Intelligent Orientation Control (IOC)

A method of control where the drone follows the control stick’s directions regardless of the position of the drone’s front end.

Jello

A distortion in video feeds that is caused by the vibration of the drone. Typically, drones without a quality gimbal suffer from jello effect.

Hobby Grade

 A step above toy grade drones. These types of quadcopters are reliable at a reasonable price. Examples are Syma X8G and MJX Bugs.

L

Leaks

When there are products close to release and unofficial photos and videos of it appear online. Some examples being the DJI Mavic 3 or the DJI FPV Drone.

Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) System

An application that is developed by the drone industry that provides UAV operators with real-time processing of airspace notifications. It also automatically approves the flight requests of eligible drones in controlled airspace. 

Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR)

Also called active laser scanning. A technology that uses a pulsing laser that plots an object’s three-dimensional topography in maps. It is usually mounted on GPS-enabled drones with the aim to collect geographical data

Lithium Polymer (LiPo)

A type of battery technology that is favored by many drone manufacturers because of its lightweight and high-capacity charging. While it is generally safe, LiPo’s can burst in flames when overcharged or the polymer case is broken.

Short for Line of Sight (LOS)

The ability to see a drone that you are operating from your position with just your naked eye.

M

Milliamp Hour (mAh)

A unit of measurement that describes power over time. It is usually used to indicate how much power a battery can provide.

Mini drone

A type of drone that is inexpensive without camera attachments or payloads; for beginners or children.

Mobius Camera

A popular type of camera that is lightweight and can take video footage in high-definition. It can also take intervalometer photos. The camera is mostly used in RC drones. 

Mod

Short for modifications. Custom changes made by drone owners into their crafts to add features and functionalities that are not usually commercially available

Mode 1 transmitters

Controllers with throttle sticks positioned on the right. Usually more popular in the United Kingdom (UK).

Mode 2 transmitters

Controllers with throttle sticks positioned on the left. Usually more popular in the United States (US).

Multicopter

A drone with multiple propellers; an umbrella term.

Multirotor

See multicopter.

MultiGP

An international drone racing league that manages and governs various radio-controlled racing. 

N, O

Nano Drone

See Mini Drone.

NAZA

A type of controller that is used in DJI Phantom drones. It includes the main control chip, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a barometric altimeter.

No-Fly Zone

 Areas where it is prohibited to fly drones as per the mandate of the government or any local governing body. Typically, No-Fly Zones include airports and other private areas. 

Obstacle Avoidance System (OAS)

A system that was developed to provide immediate alerts and notification to the pilot when an aircraft is about to run into an obstacle.

Octocopter

A drone with 8 propellers or rotors.

On-Screen Display (OSD)

A graphical user interface that shows drone flight data such as speed, heading, battery life, and more.

P, Q

Part 107

Refers to the CFR Part 107 of the FAA Regulations that covers non-hobbyist UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds (24.9 kg) used for commercial purposes. Applies to drone flying in the United States.

Payload

Additional weight that a drone can lift on top of its own weight. For example, a third-party camera and gimbal attached to the drone are considered payloads.

Power Distribution Board (PDB)

 A component of a drone that distributes the power from the battery to the other parts of the device.

Pitch

Refers to the forward and backward motion of the drone. A flight angle along an axis measures against level.

Pre-Flight Planning

Any activities or preparations conducted by the pilot or the drone operator before the takeoff. May include, but not limited to, safety measures, checking the weather, path of the flight, equipment, support staff, and more.

Professional drone

A high-end drone with four or more propellers; often have a built-in high-definition camera for photographs and videos.

Prop

Refers to the Propeller.

Quadcopter

A drone with four propellers (known as quadricopter or quadrocopter).

R

Raceband

A frequency (5.8 GHz) typically used in drone racing especially when multiple pilots are flying.

Racing drone

a drone relatively smaller and more agile; developed for drone racing; includes a built-in camera for a cockpit view.

Radio Controller (RC or R/C)

 A device that broadcasts in a specific channel or frequency to the drone during a flight to send instructions or control signals. See Controller or Transmitter.

Receiver (Rx)

A device that accepts the signal of the camera’s feed and displays it on a goggle or screen. 

Remotely Piloted Aerial Vehicle (RPAV)

an official name of drones. See drone.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)

See unmanned aerial vehicle system (UAVS). 

Return to Home

A drone’s feature where the device uses GPS technology to return to the position where it took off.

Ready to Fly (RTF)

Refers to drone packages available in the market where everything needed for flying is included. The device is ready to fly without any assembly required.

S

Sense and Avoid

A functionality of some UAS to avoid collisions with obstacles and other aircraft.

Servomotor (Servo)

Also known as a servomechanism. A mechanism used in an aircraft to perform various functions such as flap wings or pan cameras.

Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS)

See Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System (UAVS) 

Spotter

Another person that keeps your drone within line-of-sight when the pilot is in FPV. They usually identify obstacles and hazards that you might not see in FPV.

T

Throttle

A mechanism that influences the speed of the motors. As such, the higher the throttle, the more thrust.

Thrust

The force of the motor and the propeller which generates lift that takes the drone airborne. 

Toy-grade

A type of drone that is meant for beginners with basic functionalities

Transmitter (TX)

 See Radio Controller

Trim

A way to adjust the drone while it hovers which allows the craft to stay in place.

Toy drone

See Mini drone.

U

Ultrasonic sensor

A type of device that uses ultrasound wavelength to communicate with a transmitter. On some drones, it is used to measure the distance between the craft and the ground. Usually works only for a few meters from the ground.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

the official term for drones. See drone.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System (UAVS)

a system that includes UAVs, land-based control systems, communication systems, launch mechanisms, and more. See unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM)

Coined by NASA to integrate unmanned and manned crafts into low altitude space. A cloud-based system that manages air traffic to avoid collision especially with a limited line of sight. 

V, W, Y

Video Latency

Refers to the lag or delay in what you see in your monitor or goggle display and what your camera captures.

Visual line of sight (VLOS)

Refers to the pilot’s view from the ground to the drone without the use of any artificial vision such as goggles or displays. 

Visual Observer

Another crew or person that is tasked to assist the drone pilot in avoiding obstacles, clouds, other aircraft, and more. Usually needed when flying on FPV.

Video transmitter (VTX)

A device that is connected to the camera. It transmits a signal to the device on the ground that displays the video feed.

Virtual Reality Goggles

A VR headset for drones made so it can come with advanced features like head tracking, or simply used for more immersion.

Waypoint

A point in space represented by coordinates which are typically used in designing paths for drones in autonomous flights. 

WiFi FPV

A technology on low-end drones that connects a mobile device to the drone using an application that captures the video feed.

Yaw

A drone’s movement or rotation around its center axis on a specific plane.

What types of drones are there?

drones-ranked-by-specs.png

In this section, we’re taking a look at the types of UAV out there and get a bit deeper into drone terminology and acronyms.

 

You've all heard about military drones that made a bit of a bad reputation for common commercial UAVs in general.

However we're not going to discuss those right now. We’ll only focus on consumer camera drones(even professional ones)e

Multi Rotor Drones

multirotor quadcopter drone

The most prevalent out of the bunch, and definitely the most popular, Multirotor Drones are the most common types, used by professionals and hobbyists. They are mostly used in aerial photography, video surveillance, inspection and much much more!

As a point of reference, the longest flying multi Rotor Drones can stay for 20-30 minutes in the air at one time.

These multi rotor drones can also be further classified based on how many motors they have into the following categories:

ADVANTAGES

  1. Accessibility
  2. Ease of use
  3. VTOL and hover Flight
  4. Good camera control
  5. Can operate in a confined area

DISADVANTAGES

  1. Short flight times
  2. Small payload capacity

Quadcopter

The most frequently used model, being very power efficient and handling great, it's no wonder it's the choice of most manufacturers out there. Having 4 motors, they adjust the speed at which the motors spin thanks to ESC, also known as electronic speed controllers that connect to a main computer board. 

Tricopter

There are drones that can indeed fly with less than 4 motors, very rare, as they are prone to a bit more instability. What's even more, there are also bi copters, which reminds me of the really cool new drone called V-copter Falcon that's been recently revealed. I plan to review this one of these days, as it's so damn cool looking  And that one flies for 50 minutes which is well above everything we've been used to.

 

Hexacopters

They have 6 rotors are provide a little bit more redundancy and power to the mix. This is what you'll find in drones that are able to carry bigger cameras, maybe DSLRs and such. They are also used for inspection work and even for agriculture use.

 

Octacopters(or octocopters)

The big boys with 8 rotors included are the top of the game for raw power and redundancy.

Fixed wing drones

fixed wing drones

Don't think that planes can't be called drones, as you can remember, the only conditions are that it flies and doesn't have an on board pilot. 

ADVANTAGES

  1. They can stay longer in the air ( as they don't need to use that much energy to beat gravity, as they can glide in the air)
  2. They can cover larger areas in a shorter time (useful for anything agriculture related)
  3. Usually more lightweight than multirotors

DISADVANTAGES

  1. Larger frame (not as easy to transport)
  2. Can't hover on the spot (not useful for photography)
  3. Higher skill required ( it's not as easy to fly a permanently moving drone compared to a GPS one that stays on the spot)

Some of these fixed-wing drones can fly for 16 hours or more, especially if you have solar panels installed on the wings. If you're curious what the range would be in this case... well.. theoretically infinite.

I would also consider adding underwater drones in this category, as they are basically fixed wings, but in a different environment, but remember this doesn't apply to any waterproof drone.

Drones can use 4G LTE signal to fly, just like your phone gets internet data, for example. There's this YouTuber Dustin Dunhill that tested such a mode with the Parrot Disco to travel from one island to the other and actually succeeded. You can do so much more with the right equipment though.

 

Vertical Take Off Drones

VTOL drone quadcopter

Also known as VTOL, are a very interesting hybrid between the previous two, as they can take off like regular drones , yet engage into gliding like fixed wing drones while they reach a certain altitude or speed.

This allows for improving battery limits while benefiting from the stillness and stability of standard drones. It's a complicated design mix, so don't expect to see much of these types on the market soon.

As a point of reference, Amazon was planning to make theri drones in a VTOL shape, being able to glide for more efficiency yet still land precisely on a location.

There's also Single-rotor drones that are basically like helicopters, they have a heavier payload capacity and have the ability to hover flight, but come with the disadvantage of being more dangerous and harder to fly.

You can check the article in the description where I have a table with the pros and cons of each type of drone we talked about so far. You can also find out my top quadcopters for each price category, including for beginners.

 

ADVANTAGES

  1. Vertical take-off
  2. Long endurance flight

DISADVANTAGES

  1. Not perfect at hovering or forward flight
  2. Still in developement

Consumer Drones and Quadcopter types

cheap drones saving money

Let's talk a bit more about Multirotor drones and quadcopters for that matter. Because that's what most people refer to when it comes to a drone and it's the most frequently found in commerce.

Drone Design - What does a drone look like?

A drone can look very different depending on how many motors it has, whether it has a camera or not, how big it is, etc.

There's a recent trend in consumer drones that was started with the DJI Mavic lineup of drones that are called foldable drones, and they're very popular thanks to their portability.

Mini Drones

First of all, there are mini drones, that are small in size, made for indoors and beginners mainly. They can be considered toy drones, but some can be quite advanced, despite their size. A drone that's small in size is the Mavic Mini, that also is a great camera drone with an amazing camera... so size is no longer such an important factor.

  • Brushed motors usually
  • very cheap
  • can be flown indoors
  • great for beginners
They can be separated into 3 categories:
  1. Mini Drones ( can be flown outdoors too)
  2. Micro Drones (intermediate small size)
  3. Nano Drones (Smallest drones you can buy)

Hobby Drones

Hobby drones are mid-sized drones that are popular among beginner hobbyists who want to take flying a drone more seriously. These types of multicopters are ideal for those with some experience in handling drones. Many hobby drones come with cameras or have mechanisms for camera attachments. 

One of the most unique ways to use a drone to complement another hobby is by rigging up a fishing drone (simpler than you might thing).

These are usually under $200 or so, and although much progress has been made, they're still not on the professional level required for making money with them.

  • usually have GPS
  • Flight modes
  • can be under $200
  • Can't be flown inside that easily

Professional Drones

Professional drones are high-end aircraft with four or more propellers or rotors. Many of these types of drones are used for professional aerial photography and videography. As such, they already have built-in high-definition cameras. They often have a better range and longer flight times.

 

These drones come with impeccable 3 axis stabilization gimbals, brushless motors and automatic flight modes. The barrier of entry has lowered substantially in the past years, now being able to get such a drone for about $500. But of course there are advantages of paying more for one.

  • Manual camera settings
  • Brushless motors
  • Well stabilized Gimbal
  • Automatic flight modes

Racing Drones

Racing drones are relatively smaller types of quadcopters. These are built to be faster and more agile than the typical hobby or professional drone. They also include a built-in camera that provides first-person view video feeds that provide a cockpit view as the craft flies through courses and obstacles.

  • Speeds of up to 170km/h
  • Powerful Lipo Batteries
  • Low Latency FPV Cameras
  • First Person View Goggles

Frequently Asked Questions

faq what should you look for in a drone

This is a more in depth look at some of the terms above as well as some of the questions people usually ask about drones, like: what's the difference between a drone and a quadcopter.

What’s the difference between drones and quadcopters?

People tend to confuse these two because most drones out there are quadcopters. The difference between a drone and a quadcopter is that the quadcopter HAS to have 4 motors, while “drone” refers mainly to any category of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, even if it has 3, 4, 6 or however many motors.

How do drones work?

If we talk about standard motorized drones like quadcopters that you can frequently find in the sky (ex DJI) then what you need to know is that it is propelled by fast spinning rotors that push air under the drone and lift it up.

You require a pilot to fly the drone and control it through a transmitter that sends the signals to a mainboard which in turn controls the speed of each motor.

For example, if the motors in front spin slower than the ones in the back, the quadcopter(in this case) tilts forward and therefore it advances forward.

The more a drone is tilted, the less power is used for helping it stay in the air and the more it is used for propelling it forward (or laterally).

Certain drones come with a camera that can livestream video directly on a controller screen or even your smartphone.

Difference between brushed and Brushless motors

I know I talked about things like Brushless motors and 3 axis what?  There's the glossary with the terms in the description, but let's go over quickly.

Brushless motors are superior to Brushed motors in every way, but they're also more expensive.

Brushes inside electric motors are used to deliver current to the motor, brushless motors don't have these commutators. This means that the Brushed motors are in perpetual physical contact with the shaft and brushes and they wear out. This makes them also noisier.

You can find brushed motors in cheaper beginner drones, under $100 usually, and brushless motors are found in more expensive drones.

 

What's a 3 axis gimbal?

Gimbals are usually found in professional camera drones and are a series of motors that help stabilize the camera, independent of how the drone moves or vibrates. This is what creates those silky smooth videos you see on youtube.

A 3 axis gimbal has 3 motors that stabilizes the image in all the 3 axis, a 2 axis gimbal doesn't usually have side stabilization and tend to be slightly cheaper.

Because this is quite a sophisticated system, they're not that cheap, so expect adding at least $100 to $200 to the price of a drone if it has one of these (especially good ones).

 

What's a 3 axis gimbal?

Electronic image stabilization is an alternative or addition to the 3 axis gimbal stabilization, and means that the image is stabilized through a software inside the drone. This is usually a compromise, as it has to cut down from the final image size, to compensate for all the movement.

Although EIS made huge progress lately, nothing can compare with a good 3 axis gimbal.

 

Obstacle Avoidance System

Another term that has been used more recently is obstacle avoidance system, thanks to the largest drone manufacturing company, DJI.

They have included cameras on their drones to provide alerts for objects in proximity and even actually calculate a new trajectory for the drone.

These can be found either in front of the drone, or lately in the back, sides and even up or down.

 

RTF(Ready to Fly) and BNF (Bind to Fly)

The term Ready To Fly comes from the hobby drone enthusiasts mainly and makes the difference on how a drone can be bought from the store.

You can get it fully functional from the box, like most commercial drones (DJI for example)

 

RTF(Ready to Fly) and BNF (Bind to Fly)

A type of battery technology that is favored by many drone manufacturers because of its lightweight and high-capacity charging. While it is generally safe, LiPo’s can burst in flames when overcharged or the polymer case is broken.

I tried to cover as much as possible for the most important aspects of a drone, but there's only as much as I can cover in a video. If you want to check out a few more dozens terms that will make you understand things better, check the description. 

You'll learn what things like throttle, jello and Geofencing are and much more

 

How far can drones fly?

There is a wide range of drones and flight distances depending on price, transmission technology and more.

A drone can fly anywhere between 50m to 10km or more. I have made a list with my top long range drones this year and more about range and what you should know about it.

Keep in mind that you should follow drone regulation in your country and most of the time that means flying line of sight.

Paul Posea
Paul Posea

Hi, I'm a long-time drone reviewer and I hope my articles and comparisons on this site as well as Dronesgator's youtube channel are of as much help as possible.

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Hope you liked all the drone terminology explained and the descriptions of every kind of drone and now you can start choosing a drone by your budget from my top list.