Terms referring to drones are often used interchangeably among operators, regulators and manufacturers. Many people use the common term “drone,” while commercial operators, public organizations and associations refer to more specific terms, such as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), small UAS (sUAS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS).

Below is a description of the different terms to help navigate in the drone (or your preferred term) industry.


The catch-all term for unmanned aircraft that can fly autonomously or be remotely piloted, “drone” is the broadest terminology. It is also the most common.

Unmanned Aircraft (UA) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)

Although used less frequently, UA or RPA is the flying component of a drone. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines an unmanned aircraft as “an aircraft which is intended to operate with no pilot on board.

Under the FAA framework, the UA is the “flying portion of the system, flown by a pilot via a ground control system, or autonomously through use of an on-board computer, communication links and any additional equipment that is necessary for the UA to operate safely.”

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)

UAS is a term mostly used in the U.S. and in the UK by the FAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association (UAVSA).

The FAA defines the UAS as the “UA and all of the associated support equipment, control station, data links, telemetry, communications and navigation equipment, etc., necessary to operate the unmanned aircraft.” Section 333 exemption specifies that a UAS is composed of an “unmanned aircraft and associated elements (including communication links and the components that control the unmanned aircraft) that are required for the pilot in command to operate safely and efficiently in the national airspace system.”

The UK Civil Aviation Authority explains that “the term Unmanned Aircraft (UA) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) are used to describe the aircraft itself, whereas the term Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is generally used to describe the entire operating equipment including the aircraft, the control station from where the aircraft is operated and the wireless data link.”

Small UAS (sUAS)

The FAA uses the term sUAS to categorize UAS weighting less than 55 pounds and conducting non-recreational operations.

Micro UAS

The FAA uses the term micro UAS to designate sUAS under 4.4 pounds and composed of materials that will break or yield on impact. Earlier this year, the FAA created the aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to focus on drafting regulations for this new category of UAS. The ARC gave its recommendations last month, which could be included in the FAA rulemaking for small UAS (sUAS) expected in June.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)

ICAO was the first to use the term RPAS and defines it as “a remotely piloted aircraft, its associated remote pilot station(s), the required command and control links and any other components as specified in the type design.” EUROCONTROL, the EASA, and the civil aviation authorities in Australia and New Zealand follow ICAO’s use of RPAS.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

UAV is a term used among professionals to refer to a drone for non-recreational purposes. ICAO first used the term UAV in 2004 and defines it as “a pilotless aircraft, in the sense of Article 8 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which is flown without a pilot-in-command on-board and is either remotely and fully controlled from another place (ground, another aircraft, space) or programmed and fully autonomous.”

What about model aircraft?

A model aircraft is a drone or sUAS used for recreational purposes only, subject to applicable requirements. The FAA requires that the drone must weigh no more than 55 pounds, be flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft, and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.