What is a “Drone”?

closeup of a gavel and dictionary legal definition

Some people argue that the word „drone“ is colloquial or incorrect. And yet a clear definition of the word is not as simple as it might at first seem. A good starting point in dealing with the word drone is to see it as an umbrella term. A drone is simply a vehicle without a human operator on board. Drones may be used on land, under water or in the air. There are drones for military as well as civil purposes. And finally, drones can be unmanned or manned. Manned drones carry passengers.

In aviation, a drone is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. This type of drone may also be called Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The UAV may be remotely piloted by a human and therefore be considered as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). The flight of the UAV may also be autonomous, meaning that it is controlled by a computer without pilot intervention. The term ‘multicopter’ refers to a rotorcraft with more than two rotors, such as quadcopter, hexacopter or octocopter. There are also fixed-wing drones which are UAVs in the same way as multicopters. An Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) comprises the UAV, the control station and the communication link between the two.

Significantly, the German equivalent of „drone“ does not appear in German aviation law. There is, however, a legal distinction between Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Unbemannte Luftfahrtsysteme) und Model Aircraft (Flugmodelle). It is a distinction based on actual use and not operational risk. Unmanned Aircraft Systems are unmanned flying devices including their control stations which are not operated for hobby or recreational purposes (Sec. 1 par. 2 s. 3 German Air Traffic Act – LuftVG). Model Aircraft are unmanned flying devices which are used for hobby or recreational purposes (Sec. 1 par. 2 S. 1 no. 9 German Air Traffic Act – LuftVG). These legal definitions entail the application of certain statutory provisions, meaning that the precise definition of a vehicle as either an Unmanned Aircraft System, or as a Model Aircraft remains paramount, even though the regulations are very similar.

Beyond the regulatory framework, however, it is sufficient to use the word „drone“. This umbrella term comprises all kinds of aircraft without a human pilot on board and can be used to refer to a wide range of unmanned aircraft within the drone industry.

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