What Is the Difference Between Drone, UAV, UAS, RPS, or RPAS?

Drones have been more and more popular over the past years, for not only good reasons but also infamous ones. People have used some drones to assist in the application of legislation, support search and rescue attempts, as well as help with fire management at virtually no risks. Meanwhile, some drones follow and watch people illegally, get involved in drug trafficking, or cause trouble in runways at airports.

All the gossip about this flying machine arises questions. What are drones, indeed? And what is the difference between drone, UAV, UAS, RPA, or RPAS?

Briefly, for news, articles, chats, and whatnot, people prefer using the simple word ‘drone’. More often than not, by drones, people think of typical multi-copters. Considering this aerial vehicle’s insane popularity, there is a good chance that such a perception is the truth’s reflection. 

Yet, as far as technical contexts are involved, the difference between RPA, UAS, and UAV needs making. Also, it is worth noting that the drone, the UAV is just part of the whole ecosystem of workforce, competencies, and hardware input contributing to the formation of the UAS.

For further details and clarity, let’s dive into this specific post.

What is with the confusion?

As you may be in the know, the media has used the word ‘drone’ for pretty much any kind of vehicle that can guide itself. 

For example, the Predator XP, a crewless airplane leveraged by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and USAF (United States Air Force) is also mentioned as a drone. It is outfitted with an advanced sensor and camera system for surveillance. Meanwhile, a drone can be an inexpensive flying toy intended for a kid to operate with an intuitive mobile application.

More to your confusion, many regulations and guidelines regarding those ‘drones’ address them as ‘UAS’ or ‘UAV’. For instance, the 14 Code of Federal Regulation Part 107 rules are officially named as the ‘Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations’ and uses the word ‘UAS’ religiously inside. 

For you to remove the doubts, how about we dig into the accurate definition of the terms, RPA, UAS, UAV, and drone?

Drone: What exactly is it?

Short for Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment, the term ‘drone’ addresses any crewless aerial vehicle. It is most often used mainly because the media is well-versed that it will draw casual audiences’ attention. Technical-wise, a drone can imply any vehicle with the automobile driving ability, even ones operating in land or water. 

Nowadays, the drone definition has extended to involve vehicles which enable remote control and above all, have autonomous movement functionality. In this way, a more straightforward way of defining the term is directly as any vehicle capable of working with no drive or pilot in its inside

What is more to note? You can use ‘drone’ as a non-technical all-inclusive word for UAS and UAV alike. It likely means multi-copter or fixed-wing product units (with the first type having become way more mainstream these days).

While drone is a great term for use in media, say TV and films, it might not specific enough for technical conversations. Indeed, authorities and the military tend to avoid this word because it may connote that the vehicle is wholly autonomous and mindless, when by and large that is fallacious. 

Particularly, the military is not fond of using the word since regardless of it having an appealing context, to begin with, it sometimes has to do with politicized messages such as ‘drone bombings’. As you know, just about any military ‘drone’ is unarmed and literally employed for surveillance, humanitarian aid delivery, search and rescue operations, or something.

How about a UAV?

1. Its definition 

It is the abbreviation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. This term narrows down a drone’s definition to an aerial vehicle with the ability to fly remotely or autonomously. 

Also, it is worth mentioning that the UAVs are, without exception, unarmed and have popular usage in less lethal assignments – for example, a region’s mapping, thermal and visual mapping, and surveying. In comparison, some drones are equipped with destructive weapons and used for inflicting militant leader casualties, for instance.

An UAV Surveying Close to a Highway
An UAV Surveying Close to a Highway

In this sense, where the words ‘drone’ and ‘UAV’ are interchangeable in use in pretty much any news, website, and article, not every drone is UAV. But be that as it may, it is safe to state that every UAV is a drone. 

More pedantically, by UAVs, we just mean the aerial vehicle itself without the other equipment and accessories used to make it function. This is a significant difference to address when you differentiate a UAV from a UAS.

2. Weight naming classifications

Further, naming classification based on mass applies for UAVs: 

  • MAV (aka Micro Air Vehicle): The name for a UAV whose weight is no more than one gram (0.001 kilograms).
  • sUAS (aka small Unmanned Aircraft System): Applicable to a UAV that has a mass of no more than 25000 grams (25 kilograms). One thing to note, particularly written in lowercase, the letter ‘s’ sheds light on these vehicles’ small size.
  • UAV: Applicable to the crewless aircraft vehicle that weighs over 25000 grams (25 kilograms).

3. UAV acronyms

UAV is the first letter of not only the word Unmanned Aerial Vehicle but also:

  • Upper Atmosphere Vehicle
  • Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle
  • Unmanned Airborne Vehicle
  • Uninhabited Aircraft Vehicle
  • Unmanned Aerospace Vehicle
  • Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle
  • Unmanned Air Vehicle

UAS: Its exact definition

UAS is short for Unmanned Aerial System. The good news is differentiating it from a UAV is super-duper simple. 

In layman’s terms, a UAS is the entirety of things in charge of making a UAV function. These include the pilot on the ground responsible for controlling the UAV, every software, its camera, transmission mechanisms, ground control module, and GPS feature. In other words, a UAV is part of a UAS. 


The field of UAVs (also drones) is pretty young. That is why it comes with no surprise that the language surrounding it is going to evolve for the years to come. Even at present, here and there, people leverage the word ‘RPA’.

As you may know, RPA is the abbreviation of Remote Pilot Aircraft. The term is created with a view to making a distinction between advanced drones which need a considerable amount of experience or training and casual product units intended for recreational airborne operations.

RPA aside, the term RPV is also worth addressing. It is short for Remotely Piloted Vehicle. Across the 1990s, the United States Air Force leveraged this word to call retired fighter aerial vehicles adapted to manage to get flown remotely. For the most part, it assumes the role of aerial targets for a variety of purposes. 

Indeed, people are not legit acquainted with using ‘RPA’, especially considering the meaning it is intended for. And ‘UAV’ and ‘RPA’ tend to be interchangeably used.

Last but not least, how about the term ‘RPAS’? While RPA is meant to specify the aerial vehicle itself, RPAS (Remote Pilot Aircraft System) describes the whole operating equipment, inclusive of the wireless data link, the control station that the vehicle is operated, and the aircraft.

In a nutshell

Similar to technology and society, language sees a continuous evolution. Ten years ago, many people have an idea of drones as crewless aircraft vehicles used to keep track or attack terrorist hotbeds. These days, they are way more mainstream and available for common people’s use. Even the $$ remote-controlled aerial vehicle which can be piloted by a child is mentioned as a drone.

Likewise, the terms ‘UAS’, and ‘UAV’ had to do with the military and at present, these are employed in the drone-associated policy and by more technically centered drone pilots. RPA is used interchangeably with UAV as well. The difference between them is quite clear and is a significant matter to zero in on in the topics of technical troubleshooting, restrictions, rules, and regulations.

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