Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. UAVs are a component of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) which include a UAV, a ground-based controller, and a system of communications between the two. The flight of UAVs may operate with various degrees of autonomy: either under remote control by a human operator or autonomously by onboard computers.

Compared to manned aircraft, UAVs were originally used for missions too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for humans. While they originated mostly in military applications, their use is rapidly expanding to commercial, scientific, recreational, agricultural, and other applications, such as policing, peacekeeping, and surveillance, product deliveries, aerial photography, agriculture, smuggling and drone racing. Civilian drones now vastly outnumber military drones, with estimates of over a million sold by 2015, so they can be seen as an early commercial application of Autonomous Things, to be followed by the autonomous car and home robots.


Multiple terms are used for unmanned aerial vehicles, which generally refer to the same concept.

The term drone, more widely used by the public, was coined in reference to the resemblance of the sound, of navigation and loud-and-regular motor of old military unmanned aircraft, to the male bee.

The term unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was adopted by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and the United States Federal Aviation Administration in 2005 according to their Unmanned Aircraft System Roadmap 2005–2030. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the British Civil Aviation Authority adopted this term, also used in the European Union’s Single-European-Sky (SES) Air-Traffic-Management (ATM) Research (SESAR Joint Undertaking) roadmap for 2020. This term emphasizes the importance of elements other than the aircraft. It includes elements such as ground control stations, data links and other support equipment. A similar term is an unmanned-aircraft vehicle system (UAVS) remotely piloted aerial vehicle (RPAV), remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS). Many similar terms are in use.

A UAV is defined as a “powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload”. Therefore, missiles are not considered UAVs because the vehicle itself is a weapon that is not reused, though it is also unmanned and in some cases remotely guided.


UAVs typically fall into one of six functional categories :
Target and decoy – providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
Reconnaissance – providing battlefield intelligence
Combat – providing attack capability for high-risk missions
Logistics – delivering cargo
Research and development – improve UAV technologies
Civil and commercial UAVs – agriculture, aerial photography, data collection

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

UAV components

Manned and unmanned aircraft of the same type generally have recognizably similar physical components. The main exceptions are the cockpit and environmental control system or life support systems. Some UAVs carry payloads (such as a camera) that weigh considerably less than an adult human, and as a result can be considerably smaller. Though they carry heavy payloads, weaponized military drones are lighter than their manned counterparts with comparable armaments.

Small civilian UAVs have no life-critical systems, and can thus be built out of lighter but less sturdy materials and shapes, and can use less robustly tested electronic control systems. For small UAVs, the quadcopter design has become popular, though this layout is rarely used for manned aircraft. Miniaturization means that less-powerful propulsion technologies can be used that are not feasible for manned aircraft, such as small electric motors and batteries. (see above figure)

Control systems for UAVs are often different than manned craft. For remote human control, a camera and video link almost always replace the cockpit windows; radio-transmitted digital commands replace physical cockpit controls. Autopilot software is used on both manned and unmanned aircraft, with varying feature sets.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)


The primary difference for planes is the absence of the cockpit area and its windows. Tailless Quadcopters are a common form factor for rotary wing UAVs while tailed mono- and bi-copters are common for manned platforms.

Power supply and platform

Small UAVs mostly use lithium-polymer batteries (Li-Po), while larger vehicles rely on conventional airplane engines. Battery elimination circuitry (BEC) is used to centralize power distribution and often harbors a microcontroller unit (MCU). Costlier switching BECs diminish heating on the platform.


UAV computing capability followed the advances of computing technology, beginning with analog controls and evolving into microcontrollers, then system-on-a-chip (SOC) and single-board computers (SBC). System hardware for small UAVs is often called the Flight Controller (FC), Flight Controller Board (FCB) or Autopilot.


Position and movement sensors give information about the aircraft state. Exteroceptive sensors deal with external information like distance measurements, while exproprioceptive ones correlate internal and external states. Non-cooperative sensors are able to detect targets autonomously so they are used for separation assurance and collision avoidance.

Degrees of freedom (DOF) refer to both the amount and quality of sensors on-board: 6 DOF implies 3-axis gyroscopes and accelerometers (a typical inertial measurement unit – IMU), 9 DOF refers to an IMU plus a compass, 10 DOF adds a barometer and 11 DOF usually adds a GPS receiver.


UAV actuators include digital electronic speed controllers (which control the RPM of the motors) linked to motors/engines and propellers, servomotors (for planes and helicopters mostly), weapons, payload actuators, LEDs and speakers.


UAV software called the flight stack or autopilot. UAVs are real-time systems that require rapid response to changing sensor data. Examples include Raspberry Pis, Beagleboards, etc. shielded with NavIO, PXFMini, etc. or designed from scratch such as Nuttx, preemptive-RT Linux, Xenomai, Orocos-Robot Operating System or DDS-ROS 2.0.
List of civil-use open-source stacks include:

• KKMultiCopter
• ArduCopter
• DroneCode (forked from ArduCopter)
• MultiWii
• BaseFlight (forked from MultiWii)
• CleanFlight (forked from BaseFlight)
• BetaFlight (forked from CleanFlight)
• RaceFlight (forked from CleanFlight)
• iNav (forked from CleanFlight)
• Paparazzi
• OpenPilot
• TauLabs (forked from OpenPilot)
• dRonin (forked from OpenPilot)
• LibrePilot (forked from OpenPilot)
• CrazyFlie

Loop principles

UAVs employ open-loop, closed-loop or hybrid control architectures.

Open loop—This type provides a positive control signal (faster, slower, left, right, up, down) without incorporating feedback from sensor data.

Closed loop – This type incorporates sensor feedback to adjust behavior (reduce speed to reflect tailwind, move to altitude 300 feet). The PID controller is common. Sometimes, feedforward is employed, transferring the need to close the loop further.

Flight controls

Flight control is one of the lower-layer system and is similar to manned aviation: plane flight dynamics, control and automation, helicopter flight dynamics and controls and multirotor flight dynamics were researched long before the rise of UAVs. Automatic flight involves multiple levels of priority.

UAVs can be programmed to perform aggressive manœuvres or landing/perching on inclined surfaces, and then to climb toward better communication spots. Some UAVs can control flight with varying flight modelisation, such as VTOL designs.

UAVs can also implement perching on a flat vertical surface.


Most UAVs use a radio frequency front-end that connects the antenna to the analog-to-digital converter and a flight computer that controls avionics (and that may be capable of autonomous or semi-autonomous operation). Radio allows remote control and exchange of video and other data. Early UAVs  had only uplink. Downlinks (e.g., realtime video) came later.

In military systems and high-end domestic applications, downlink may convey payload management status. In civilian applications, most transmissions are commands from operator to vehicle. Downstream is mainly video. Telemetry is another kind of downstream link, transmitting status about the aircraft systems to the remote operator. UAVs use also satellite “uplink” to access satellite navigation systems.

The radio signal from the operator side can be issued from either:

  • Ground control – a human operating a radio transmitter/receiver, a smartphone, a tablet, a computer, or the original meaning of a military ground control station (GCS). Recently control from wearable devices, human movement recognition, human brain waves  was also demonstrated.
  • Remote network system, such as satellite duplex data links for some military powers. Downstream digital video over mobile networks has also entered consumer markets, while direct UAV control uplink over the celullar mesh is under researched.
  • Another aircraft, serving as a relay or mobile control station – military manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T).



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