RC Drone

I'm not a drone, I'm an RC aircraft; a multi-rotor RC aircraft to be specific.

I have been hopeful the RC Drone misnomer would fade as the general public got more informed as to what most of these RC aircraft actually are. Unfortunately that's not the case; in fact, I'm basically pounding sand hoping things might actually improve.

Yep, I have come to the reluctant conclusion, the name drone (regardless how incorrect it is to describe the vast majority of multi-rotor RC aircraft) is here to stay and nothing I do or say has a snow ball's chance to change that. Tribal mentality in this new age of alternate facts, sensationalized news reporting, and marketing hype is easier and more appealing to accept. 

All that said, I would at least like to point out what the vast majority of these fun recreational aircraft actually are.

Below are a few rotary model RC aircraft I currently fly... Your job is to identify which one is the RC drone.

RC Drone # 1RC Drone Possibility # 1
RC Drone # 2RC Drone Possibility # 2
RC Drone # 3RC Drone Possibility # 3
RC Drone # 4RC Drone Possibility # 4
RC Drone # 5RC Drone Possibility # 5
RC Drone # 6RC Drone Possibility # 6

So, which one is the drone?


They are, all of them, run of the mill RC aircraft.

What Makes A True RC Drone?

Before answering that, I should point out what all these aircraft (both RC & Drones) are. They are all UA's (unmanned aircraft), or UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles), or sUAS's (small unmanned aerial systems), or RPV's (remotely piloted vehicles).

If media and marketing wanted recreational RC aircraft to sound cooler or more menacing, then at least call them a UAV, UAS, or an RPV. I suppose "RC Drone" just rolls off the tongue easier and is way easier to both market and sensationalize? 

An unmanned aircraft must meet certain criteria to be classified as a true drone.

  • Most aerial drones (not all however) are fully autonomous; meaning they are essentially flying robots and need no human intervention for flight control. Yes, humans program a flight mission and can usually take over control when needed, but most of the time they are flying fully autonomously.
  • The next distinction is the single most important one that no true drone can be without. It comes from the mention of the word "mission" in the first point. All true flying drones MUST perform a specific flight mission; whether that be aerial reconnaissance, camera/video imaging, atmospheric data acquisition, or search & rescue operations. In short, they must perform some specific job and have a useful, commercial, or military application. Again, none of us in the hobby are doing that, we fly for fun & recreation and "drone" is simply the most incorrect thing anyone can call any of our RC aircraft. Drone after all is a "worker", the exact polar opposite of fun!
  • If you use a quad copter or other RC aircraft for commercial use (ie. aerial photography), in most countries you will need special permission or a certificate to do it legally. This still doesn't mean you are flying a drone however. No governing body (that I can find anyways) calls these "drone certificates", they call them UA (unmanned aircraft) certificates.
  •  The majority of true aerial drones weigh over 25 kg (generally much more in fact) and can fly for hours on end - can your little sub 10 pound RC quad-rotor do that? No, well guess what - it's not a true drone.  

Many of us actually do have true drones in our homes...

Yep, the humble yet very cool robot vacuum such our little Neato seen here on his daily cleaning mission, is a true drone in all definitions of the word.

It's fully autonomous. It maps out the rooms & items within the rooms with a rotating IR laser and then uses a sophisticated algorithm along with on board sensors to calculate the most efficient/effective cleaning routes. Watching its "machine intelligence" in action is simply amazing.

It will head back to his base when he needs recharging and then resumes his cleaning mission once fully charged. In short he can run for hours on end if needed.

Finally and most importantly, he is a hard working little bugger and has a specific mission/job... He keeps the floors in our house clean. When you have two shedding dogs, his daily workload around here is relentless, but so important. Yep, little Neato here is a tireless working drone - nuff said! 

There are also the new type of quad-rotor aircraft that can certainly qualify as a "flying drone", and these are the next generation of fully autonomous flying action cameras such as the DJI Mavic Pro which have very sophisticated autonomous technology such as GPS positioning, follow me, and obstacle avoidance.

They are designed for one purpose, and that is to take stunning aerial photography & video. They work hard at that specific task and watching one these things following you around taking video and tracking you, is nothing short of science fiction becoming science fact. 

Personally, I like the term "flying robot" for these fully autonomous quad copters. It is both more accurate and descriptive technology wise, without the negative spin.

So Why Do I & Other RC Aviation Hobbyists Get So Upset Over This Seemingly Harmless "RC Drone" Misnomer?


I have been involved in RC flight now for over 30 years, and never have I seen it been cast in such a negative light in all directions. For years, us RC aviators were very responsible and able to self govern our activities putting a very positive spin on model aviation in general. Now all that hard work has been undermined by lack of education, ignorance, superstition, sensationalism, and poor judgment/actions of others.

As I stated, drone is a highly negative & misleading word to the general public after all. It doesn't take more than some sensationalized news report or headline stating "drone crashes into busy intersection" to freak people out or mislead them.

It's no wonder I get so upset after all these years when I have considered myself a responsible RC aviator/hobbyist; and now all of a sudden, I'm being pigeon holed as a "drone flyer" by those who don't have the slightest clue about our hobby!

Hell, just last week, my wife was approached by someone who asked, "was that your hubby who was flying a drone north of town yesterday?"  Indeed I was out flying - a big scale RC helicopter; so it's not bad enough I've been given the derogatory name plate; my poor innocent helicopters are also being called filthy drones. The gloves are off!

Want more proof how the general public perceives "drones" and are being mislead? Have a look at this Audi A6 Commercial.

Yes, it's a great & entertaining twist on the Hitchcock classic "The Birds", but totally & incorrectly portrays multi-rotor aircraft as a threat.

The underlying message of the commercial is "Advanced Technology Doesn't Have To Be Intimidating". When it comes to RC Aircraft usage, the message should be:

"Advanced Technology In The Hands of Irresponsible People Will Impose New Restrictions & Public Negativity".

Assuming computer animation was available at the time, Audi could have easily made this commercial years ago with RC airplanes or helicopters attacking people.

Of course they never did as there was zero fear of RC aircraft back then, and justifiably so because us model aviators were responsible, and gave the general public no reason to fear our aircraft.


Well, my fear has come true! Thanks to irresponsible marketing, sensationalized news reports, and people doing stupid things, the FAA now requires mandatory registration of all RC aircraft that weigh over half a pound and are flown outdoors. The registration rules went into effect December 21, 2015. Here is my full write-up explaining what this means for all RC pilots in the USA.

Transport Canada has also joined in with their new over-reaching RC Drone restrictions (effective March 2017) which affect all over 250 gram RC aircraft usage. In fact, I'm now grounded and can't fly any of my larger RC helicopters, not even on my own acreage. A BIG THANKS go out to all the nuts out there for wrecking it for the rest of us and sensationalized media reports of "drone sightings". 

Here is another good RC Drone BS article published by Brian Dunning at Skeptoid.com. Any critical thinking person should enjoy the read.

What Can We All Do To Improve This RC Drone Problem?

No RC Drone ZoneNo RC Drone Zone

Like it or not, the careless use of the word RC drone has certainly gained world wide acceptance when it comes to describing pretty much any multi/quad-rotor RC aircraft on the market and even conventional RC aircraft by some.

When the FAA, Transport Canada, and other government regulatory bodies world wide start using the word "drone" as well, along with almost every manufacturer and even what I thought to be very responsible hobby shops; I realize there is absolutely nothing a little guy like me, nor anyone else can do about putting a dent in the erroneous use of the word.

That said, there is absolutely something we can all do to help improve public opinion about our hobby...

Be A Responsible RC Aviation Hobbyist!

There is one fundamental reason why our hobby is under such scrutiny right now, drone noise aside; it's the actions of DUMB PEOPLE! I touched on this point on my Are RC Helicopters Hard To Fly & FAA RC Registration pages.

As I stated on those two pages, the introduction of electronic flying aids have made it possible for just about anyone to fly an RC aircraft with no skill or training. Scarier yet, many are flying them well beyond visual range; there are now unfortunately millions of people flying RC aircraft with little to no understanding of the risks involved (ie. the numerous things that can potentially go wrong while flying an RC model). 

Before all this "electronic help", if you weren't skilled enough to fly, you simply crashed long before your airplane or helicopter ever got high or far away enough to pose a threat to others, plus we all flew our RC aircraft in a small visual envelope of space. Well, that "beginner safety net" and "close proximity flying arena" is now gone.

I get at least one email a month from someone who just got a quadcopter and is super upset because they lost it (almost always due to flying it way too high up & far away for their ability or what would be considered safe). An RC plane or heli would just crash as soon as you can't make out what you are doing, but not an RC quad/multi-rotor with electronic stabilization.

Where do you think all these lost quads are going? They come crashing back down to mother earth, some of which will no doubt cause property damage.

Please don't think for a moment I'm against all this new stabilization technology that has opened up the wonderful world RC flight to so many. I'm thrilled that people who never once considered piloting an RC aircraft  can now enjoy this fun past time as well; but there needs to be more education or just simple common sense.

My own motto I follow when I fly is:

"How do you know when your RC aircraft might fall out of the sky or experience a total loss of control? Any time it's flying!"

If this simple, yet powerful thought is in your head while flying any RC model, you really start paying close attention to what you are flying over and the potential risk you may be causing.

That simple statement should be a mandatory item to put in the instructions and on the box in bold print of every RC aircraft sold. I certainly include it with the 600ESP helicopter kits I sell.

It won't keep all the mischievous nuts out there from flying over busy areas, people, houses, and worst of all - near airports; but I'm sure it would go a long way to educate people new to RC flight that nothing is full proof and that they as the RC pilot are accountable for their actions - more so now than ever.

For those new to RC flight, I encourage you to read AMA's (Academy of Model Aeronautics) safety code to get an idea of what you as a model aviator should be aware of and what safe flying is all about. This safety list is very similar to most other country's RC safety rules. The Know Before You Fly website is also a great resource.

This next video is really entertaining if you are a Jeff Dunham fan like I am.

Is it too much to ask these days for people to use common sense? Perhaps it is. If so, we are very well on our way of losing one more super fun and fairly unrestricted & unregulated past time.

RC drone rant over with... I'm late for my scale heli's appointment with the councilor since it has recently developed an identity crisis known as HDD (Helicopter Drone Disorder) ;-)

HDD Therapy Session

Visitor Feedback

Hello Mr. Salt, I just wanted to congratulate you on your "RC Drone Misnomer" article. I've been an avid RC airplane enthusiast for years and feel the exact same way you do. Your factual article hits every point in my opinion. Why on earth all of a sudden every RC aircraft (specifically multi-rotors), have been classified as drones is beyond me. Members of my flying club are also fighting this and it's refreshing to see at least one website out there trying to educate the public instead of prey on their lack of understanding to sell something. I fear we are up against a losing battle, but perhaps if more websites and hobby shops have the insight/guts to do exactly what you have done on your website, there is some hope.

I have put links on our club's website to both your article and to your website. We are an airplane only club, but after browsing your website, I found it to be a wonderful resource for all RC flying enthusiasts. Very refreshing. Keep up the good work and let's hope those "filthy drones" as you call them, days are numbered.

Glen Schuller - United States

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