What is UAS?

There are many terms for UAS technology such as Drone, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Unmanned Aircraft (UA), Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) and small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS). These terms are often used interchangeably. With respect to the use of unmanned aircraft in public safety, the following differences are important:

UAS Terms


A popular term applied to unmanned aircraft systems. The term has become primarily associated with military aircraft like the Predator or Reaper. ‘Drone’ is often used when referring to sUAS but there are important size and capability differences.

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)

A powered aircraft and all the associated support equipment, control station, data links, telemetry, communications, and navigation equipment necessary to operate it. It does not have a human pilot onboard.

Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS)

A small version of an unmanned aircraft system weighing less than 55 pounds (including the onboard systems).

Evolution of Unmanned Aircraft/Vehicle Technology


Unmanned aircraft/vehicle technology has been around for a long time but its design and use has evolved over time.

  • Pre-Aviation UAVs & the first UAV (1898)

    The first UAV like craft made use of balloons for spying. Nikola Tesla is credited with inventing the first UAV, a small unmanned boat.

  • World War I (1910s)

    Prototypes such as the Kettering Aerial Torpedo were developed and tested for use in combat but were never actually used.

  • Military Development (1930s)

    Recognizing their potential, the military experimented with the development of prototype UAVs for use in combat.

  • World War II (1940s)

    German use of the V-1 in combat laid the groundwork for post-war UAV development in the U.S.

  • Vietnam War (1960s)

    UAVs are used for stealth surveillance.

  • Technological Development (1970s & 1980s)

    U.S. focuses on the development of new UAVs and innovative Israeli versions become integrated into U.S. fleets.

  • Staple of Military Arsenals (1990s)

    UAVs are a permanent and critical component of U.S. military arsenals.

  • National Security & Innovation (2000s)

    After 9/11, the Predator becomes the face of UAVs/Drones but beyond their military use there is a rapid evolution in UAV technology and non-military use.

  • Civilian Use (2010s and Future)

    Commercial and Hobby use of UAVs takes off with the development of small remote controlled unmanned aircraft systems. Public aircraft use (use by civilian governmental entities) faces challenges related to safety and privacy.

Major Categories of Civilian UAS use



COMMERCIAL GROWTH | Commercial use of sUAS is a multi-billion dollar industry. Among the varied commercial markets that stand to benefit from sUAS are agriculture, energy utilities, mining, construction, real estate, news media, and film production. AUVSI reports that among the first 500 commercial use applications received uses included:

  • Real Estate

  • General Aerial Surveying

  • General Aerial Photography

  • Agriculture

  • Construction

  • Utility Inspection

  • Film and Television


Note: Total is more than 100 percent because some applications requested multiple uses.

Public Safety

PUBLIC SAFETY APPLICATIONS| Police are interested in sUAS because of its low cost and many potential public safety applications. Public safety uses of sUAS include:


HOBBY USE | Recreational use of sUAS ranges as widely as do the personal and recreational interest of the hobbyists and operators who use them. Photography and videography are among the most cited recreational uses. There is also a very active do it yourself (DIY) community of sUAS operators.

Hobbyists are not required to obtain FAA approval to fly and are subject only to certain technical and safety guidelines which has posed some challenges for law enforcement. In response, the FAA has released guidance for law enforcement on responding to suspected unauthorized UAS operations.

FAA B4UFLY smartphone app →

FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) FAQs →