Multi-rotor Drones, What’s in a name?

What is a Drone?

A drone in the original sense of the word is a male Bee, although there is a prevalent association with autonomous military aircraft often carrying payloads with deadly potential.

Military drones largely gained the public’s attention during various military operations in the 1990s. They frequently have threatening sounding names, such as Reaper, Predator, etc.

However, increasing media attention surrounding multi-rotor devices may be changing the perception of the term drone.

  • A Male Bee, aka Drone. Multi-rotor drones article.
    A male Bee
  • The Reaper UAV Drone. Multi-rotor drones article.
    The Reaper

This past couple of years has seen a wave of new devices emerging from the manufacturers of multi-rotor drones, as well as some forward thinking Kickstarter campaigns1. Henceforth, a noticeable rise in public awareness of consumer grade multi-rotor drones, aka; Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS).

Let’s face it, the range of acronyms are a confusing mouthful which could also be argued – are still quite military sounding in nature. Is it any wonder the media has latched on to the now common term drone? A prime example of the term’s proliferation is the recent rise of ‘Dronies’, selfie style pictures taken from multi-rotor drones – see

Multi-rotor ‘Drones’

For love or hate, it looks like the term drone as a catchall to describe consumer multi-rotor aircraft, or RPA, RPAS, UAS, UAV’s, is here to stay – but is that such a bad thing?

If you’ve operated a small remotely piloted multi-rotor, or been near to one, you’ll attest to the likening sound of a swarm of angry bees hovering nearby. The name is very fitting in this respect and more identifiable than a bunch of nondescript letters, however will the name still continue to conjure up the destructive nature of the larger military cousins?

There are numerous other ways to term multi-rotor drones. Multirotors seems to be most prevalent regarding context which isn’t weighted towards media sensationalism. Per­son­ally, I’m a fan drop­ping the hypen from certain words, I’ve started doing this with Timelapse.

With that said, Mul­ti­copters is a really nice fit in my opin­ion and seems to be get­ting used a lot more. It’s a tad more descript­ive than Mul­tiro­tor which could eas­ily be describ­ing other devices, such as a tech­nic­ally adept lawn­mower or blender : )

  • The DH.82 Queen Bee. Multi-rotor drones article.
    The DH.82 Queen Bee
  • Multi-rotor Drone image of an Eagle.
    Eagle from a Multi-rotor

Historical name

The historical emergence of the term drone is an interesting story. In 1935 a radio-controlled version of Tiger Moth biplane was built in Great Britain to operate as a remote target for anti-aircraft gunnery practice. It was called the DH.82 Queen Bee.

It is believed this is where the term drone was first coined2, perhaps from a colloquial mixing of craft’s name and the persistent droning sound made by the aircraft. It’s not hard to imagine the how the nickname came to pass.

Attack of the Drones

Interestingly, there have been incidents where swarms of bees go after and seem to attack multi-rotor drones! I’m guessing this has to be to do with the sound the aircraft makes, with the bees feeling threatened by what they regard as a rival group.

For your enter­tain­ment, check these out, some even man­age to cause the down­fall of a few:


News outlets and the internet in general have really sealed the deal for the term drone. Having gone through the RPQ-s process to enable me to operate as a com­mer­cial pilot here in the UK has steered me to refer to multi-rotor devices as RPA / RPAS especially while writing doc­u­ment­a­tion. ‘RPAS’ is the term used by many official aviation authorities, including the International Civil Aviation Organisation – ICAO. While this seems to be the preferred term to encompass the wide range of devices out there, it can still refer to military devices.

I always tend to use Quad­copter to describe my current setup in conversation — tech­nic­ally that’s what it is after all and serves as the most descriptive term. But as I mentioned earlier, Multicopter is a much nicer overall catchall than Drones.

What do you think about the naming of multi-rotor drones?


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