by John Salt - last updated September 2021
I've 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've 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, sensationalized news reporting, and marketing hype are 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... Your job is to identify which one is the RC drone.
So, which one is the drone?
NONE OF THEM!
They are, all of them, run of the mill RC aircraft.
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 RPAS's (remotely piloted aerial systems).
If media and marketing wanted recreational RC aircraft to sound cooler or more menacing, then at least call them a UAV, UAS, or an RPAS. 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.
There are of course consumer based quad-rotor aircraft that can be classified as a drone, and these are the fully autonomous flying action cameras such as the DJI Mavic Pro, Air & Mini 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 camera" for these fully autonomous quad copters. A more accurate and descriptive term without the negative spin.
Simple, IT'S REALLY HURTING OUR HOBBY!!!
I've been involved in RC flight for over 40 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 entitled others.
RC flying areas are getting harder to find, and insurance fees are going up. You bet I'm pissed!
I personally lost my private RC flying field where I've had permission to fly RC helicopters for over 10 years. Why? The land owner was worried "drone" flyers would see me flying RC helicopters there and start flying their drones which he wanted no part of.
Yes - I have a new flying field now, but it took almost a year and lots of work of several of us to find it and make it legal to fly there!
As I stated, drone is a highly negative & misleading word to the general public. Add in the fact many are being flown BLS (beyond line of sight) which is so irresponsible & dangerous.
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 understand the difference between traditional RC aviation and FPV drone flying.
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!
Well, my "real" fear has come true! Thanks to irresponsible marketing, sensationalized news reports, and people doing really stupid things, the FAA now requires mandatory registration of all RC aircraft that weigh over half a pound and are flown outdoors. Further FAA regulation may even require costly tracking transponders in all RC aircraft, just like full size.
Here in Canada, Transport Canada has also joined in with their new over-reaching RC Drone restrictions (effective 2019 onwards) which affect all over 250 gram RC aircraft usage.
I'm a MAAC member (Model Aeronautics Association of Canada) and now fly at a MAAC approved field so I'm exempt from TC's new drone laws; but MAAC had to fight hard for us in order for that to happen, and who knows how long that exemption privilege will last?
A BIG THANKS go out to all the nuts out there for wrecking it for the rest of us; along with the false advertising, 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 will enjoy the read.
More and more law makers world wide are jumping on the "drone threat" bandwagon and imposing new restrictions without even knowing what the dangers really are, and from what type of RC aircraft are primarily responsible.
Moreover there has never ever been any fact based risk assessment studies done (that I can find anyway) that use real data to determine the risk factor of RC aircraft & quad copters.
Naturally, the general public now see all RC aircraft as bad and negative things, so elected politicians are seen as "looking out for my safety and privacy" heroes when in fact they are big ZEROS!
Knee jerk reactions with no statistical studies or science based evidence involved whatsoever. Of course, when was the last time any politician listened to a real scientist, expert in their field, or used fact based logic when making a decision? Yes, another topic for another time.
A little perspective is long overdue!
As of September 2023, there hasn't been a single death caused by a "drone" anywhere in the world. You are more likely to get killed by a falling meteorite and way more likely of winning a million dollar plus lottery.
So why all the hysteria? It's pathetic!
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 many.
Naturally that doesn't mean I will roll over and accept it. Like most true RC aviation enthusiasts, I will continue to fight this tooth and nail. I will continue to correct everyone I meet or talk to who uses the word drone describing the vast majority of quad or multi rotors and most certainly planes and helicopters.
That said, there is absolutely something we can all do to help improve public opinion about our hobby...
There is one fundamental reason why our hobby is under such scrutiny right now, misleading drone nonsense aside; it's because of the actions of IRRESPONSIBLE PEOPLE - Lots of Them!
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 (full stabilization, GPS, return to home) 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 relying 100% on the technology to save their bacon if things go wrong! Yes, that's illegal in most countries and I'm still amazed every time I see a video online of some nut flying a "drone" many km's away over high population and urban areas.
I just saw one recently of a guy in Maui "RC island hopping" using the 4G network to improve flying range from a couple km's to many tens of km's. Totally relying on the robustness of 4G coverage and several times on "return to home technology" which is never full proof.
Why doesn't the FAA come down on idiots like that? Hell, they are posting their actions on YouTube for everyone to see. And then the "copy cats" see this crap, don't understand that it's illegal or the dangers involved, and do the same thing. All of a sudden the air space is full of traffic that used to be empty and safe for full size aviators.
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, glider, 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 (visual line of sight - VLS).
Well, that "beginner safety net" and "close proximity flying arena" are 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. Blaming the aircraft no less, when almost always, it's 100% their fault 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 or flying wing with electronic stabilization.
Where do you think all these lost RC aircraft are going? They come crashing back down to mother earth, some of which will no doubt cause property damage and even personal injury. Yes, that's the real threat here.
Both in the numbers of these simple to fly things up in the sky, along with little to no understanding of how they even work coupled with a total lack of common sense, and complete sense of entitlement by many of these "drone flyers".
And now, those of us who have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours learning & honing our RC flying skills, while never once posing any threat whatsoever are funneled into the same group, and as such are blanketed with the same overreaching restrictions.
We are a totally different group of RC flyer!
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. Some then go onto the real challenge of true RC aviation and get into planes, gliders, or helis.
There simply needs to be more education & simple common sense.
My own adage 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 & danger 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.
It won't keep all the mischievous nuts or those with sense of entitlement mentalities 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 good 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.
Remember, flying RC aircraft is a privilege, not a right!
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.
As a MAAC member, I follow MAAC's safety codes which are very similar to AMA's and other country's RC flying rules.
This video is entertaining if you are a Jeff Dunham fan like I am.
Is it too
much to ask these days for people, reporters, & politicians to use common sense? Perhaps it is. If
so, we are well on our way of losing one more super fun and fairly unrestricted & unregulated past time that many of us have been safely enjoying for over half a century without issue.
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) ;-)
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