An Unmanned Aerial, or Air, Vehicle (UAV) is according to MSN Encarta an “uncrewed reconnaissance vehicle: an uncrewed aerial vehicle that can fly over combat zones and staging areas, dropping supplies to troops, releasing bombs, carrying out reconnaissance on enemy forces.”  This definition would have everyone believe that UAVs are only used in military scenarios.  This is far from the truth.

An unattributed definition used by the US military is: UAVs are capable of operating without an internal pilot; are tethered by a radio control link; and can be preprogrammed for both flight and payload operations prior to launch.  This second definition gives a much clearer perspective on the uses and roles of a UAV.

UAVs differ from ordnance and missiles in that the air vehicle is designed to come back and be re-used.  They also differ from remotely-controlled aircraft and especially small hobby planes in that they operate out of line of sight and at altitudes where a person on the ground cannot readily see them.  Like guided missiles UAVs are sophisicated systems incorporating lightweight airframes, advanced proplusion systems, secure data links, and high technology control systems and payloads.  These air vehicles still need a pilot who rather than being seated in the aircraft itself is located in a control centre normally referred to as a Ground Control Station.  The degree of sophistication now required to field an UAV is leading to people in the business referring to these systems as Unmanned Aerial Systems or UAS.

One final note on the UAV acronym: it has many extensions, as has noted 10 including plurals:

  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicle(s)
  • Unmanned Aerospace Vehicle(s)
  • Uninhabited Aircraft Vehicle
  • Unmanned Air Vehicle
  • Unmanned Airborne Vehicle
  • Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle
  • Unmanned Vehicle
  • Upper Atmosphere Vehicle

For UAS, has only one aerospace variant, Unmanned Aircraft Systems.  It is perhaps this definition that is the most important.  However within these extensions there is one very important word, Autonomous.  UAVs or UAS will in the future become fully autonomous.  Like advanced artifical intelligence these systems will be able to sense where they are, what they are doing, what they should be doing, where they should go to complete the pre-programmed task and how they can complete that task most efficiently and effectively and with a certain degree of luck return to base.  In the future the UAS rather than the UAV pilot will be the biggest decision-maker during a mission with the UAV pilot just monitoring what the vehicle is doing.

Industry and the regulators have now adopted UAS rather than UAV as the preferred term for Unmanned Aircraft or Aerial Systems as UAS encompasses all aspects of deploying these aircraft and not just the platform itself.