When I say drone in this context I don't mean an unmanned aircraft. I'm not sure what the terminology of a drone that has been adapted to carry a person? Is this picture below considered a helicopter or what? What if it ran on petroleum? enter image description here

If not, then how is the separation between a VTOL aircraft and helicopter defined?

Would a Chinook that can fly itself be a drone?

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    $\begingroup$ If it can fly itself it is an AAV, drones are dumb by definition. $\endgroup$
    – mckenzm
    Apr 23, 2019 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ I think the word you're looking for is "quadcopter". The aircraft in the picture you posted is a quadcopter. That aircraft has nothing to do with drones whatsoever, aside from the fact that it's a quadcopter, and many drones are quadcopters. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 1:38
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    $\begingroup$ @slebetman, No, it's an octacopter or a contra-rotating quadcopter. Look at the shadows. $\endgroup$
    – Spook
    Apr 23, 2019 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ There's a whole lot of questions in your question. Which is your primary question? $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Apr 23, 2019 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Spook Shadows aside, it would seem to be weirdly balanced if at all with only three arms. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Apr 23, 2019 at 18:39

4 Answers 4


A helicopter is an aircraft in which thrust and lift are provided by rotors.

A drone is an unmanned, self-piloted or remotely-controlled aircraft, which can use rotors to provide thrust and lift, but can also use other means such as propellers or turbines.

To put it in simpler terms, a helicopter can only be a helicopter, regardless of whether it has a human inside or not. A drone can be any kind of aircraft.

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    $\begingroup$ I know some people like to clarify it even further and insist that a "drone" is a self-piloting unmanned craft, rather than one remote-controlled by a human on the ground. There are people (mostly military) who get really offended when you refer to a human-controlled unmanned craft as a "drone". (Much like the infamous boat vs. ship debate - do NOT get that wrong in front of Navy people...) $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2019 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ A drone with a ground operator pretty much flies itself. The operator is there mostly to command changes to mission profile and make the kinds of life and death decisions the computer can't make (and even that will eventually be done away with with the use of machine learning). If I am not mistaken, all the autonomous and ground-operated drones have the capability to fly home on their own, either when commanded or if they lose contact with home base. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2019 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ "do NOT get that wrong in front of Navy people..." It depends on the Navy people you are in front of. I was a Naval Aviator and we called everything that floated a boat! :) Surface types don't share the same sense of humor though. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2019 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ A drone is generally useless unless it flies some sort of payload. Just because the payload is a sack of water and meat doesn't mean it's not a drone. :) $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2019 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall I'm surprised you didn't just lump them all into 'targets' to really annoy the surface sailors. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2019 at 20:55

I would just call it a VTOL aircraft. Those kind of multi-rotor VTOLs do kind of blur the line between VTOL and helicopter, but a practical way to define them could be to separate them by a key capability; the ability to glide.

A helicopter has a rotary wing that is driven forward by a power source like an airplane, but can also change pitch and glide downhill, like an airplane. A rotor is just two fuselage-less airplanes joined at the wingtips being driven in a circle by a twisting force applied at the wing tip instead of a propeller out at mid span.

A multi-rotor VTOL with small fixed pitch rotors can't glide, which is why you won't get me in one unless it has multiple levels of redundancy with NO single-points-of-failure or double-points-of-failure modes for that matter (like say being able to take damage to both rotors on one corner for example, and still maintain control).

  • $\begingroup$ "A rotor is just two fuselage-less airplanes" It can be more than two. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2019 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ "fuselage-less airplanes" ... so wings? $\endgroup$
    – Daniel P
    Apr 23, 2019 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah... as in "rotary wing" aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Apr 23, 2019 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ Theoretically that design could operate with one corner out. First all the sets are counter-rotating, so there's no torque issue. And it's hybrid electric, so it is just a controls problem to provide reverse thrust from the opposite corner if needed for balance. However they seem to have hedged their bets with a whole aircraft ballistic parachute. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I've heard that too. Ballistic parachutes are no good below a certain height, so you still end up with a critical risk zone. I have no doubt however that at some point they will be considered to be safe people movers. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Apr 23, 2019 at 18:02

There is no automatic separation between the two, it is possible for an aircraft to be both a drone and a helicopter. Drone only refers to how the vehicle is piloted, and helicopter only refers to how it flies. (Battery vs petroleum vs any other power source is a third, separate modifier, too.)

The vehicle in your picture is an unmanned aircraft, a drone, a helicopter, a quadcoptor, and a VTOL vehicle all at once.

(Note: Unmanned means not having any crew on board. You can still have passengers, they don't count.)

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    $\begingroup$ It does raise the interesting question where the distinction between a "passenger" selecting a destination on a map and a "pilot" putting a waypoint into a full autopilot is. Ability to take manual control is of course a training and likely regulatory difference. But that will never be flown without some computer assistance, such as a rate-damping loop managing the throttles (ie, what RC quad people call "acro mode") $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ It is also an R/C aircraft... $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 22:18

When I say drone in this context I don't mean an unmanned aircraft.

Drones are unmanned aircraft which can receive flight path control (rather than controls directly affecting the control surfaces/rotors). Method of generating lift, engine technology and size are not a factor - after WW1 some biplanes became drones and various air forces have converting more modern end-of-life fighters to drones, either for attack or for target practice.

I'm not sure what the terminology of a drone that has been adapted to carry a person?

Passenger carrying unmanned aerial vehicle or 'passenger drone'

Is this picture below considered a helicopter or what?

What. I'd call it a rotorcraft (UK terminology used, e.g. in CAA larger UAS guide), or more specifically a large octocopter.

I tend not to call things helicopters if they don't have helicopter controls (cyclic and collective driving a swashplate), but I can't find an authority on whether that is what makes a helicopter. Electric multi-rotor craft use differential rotor speed to manoeuvre instead.

What if it ran on petroleum?

I suspect it would fall out of the sky - it would be hard to get the control responsiveness from eight small petrol engines or one large one and an eight way variable transmission that would allow it to be stable. You could change it from an octocopter to an eight rotor helicopter by adding swashplates, but with the other changes to make that happen it would be a different thing.

  • $\begingroup$ "Drones are unmanned aircraft which can receive flight path control" False. As demonstrated by your own link, the terminology originated before such capability even existed, specifically at the point where they were turning full scale piloted aircraft into a larger version of later hobby RC planes $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisStratton yes, historically 'drone' was applied before automated wayfinding. Also 'computer' used to be the word for a human who did arithmetic, but if I someone asked me what a computer is I wouldn't give that as the definition. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ The meaning of "drone" has not changed, it is still fully inclusive of the type of remote piloted operation you are trying to exclude. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisStratton in my own lifetime it has gone from being exclusively military fixed wing to include quadcopters and the like. The distinction between a small drone and a RC plane is the wayfinding. The larger modern drones also all have wayfinding. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ The majority of quadcopters are remotely piloted. Only higher end systems have mission-level autopilot that follows GPS waypoints or terrain match cameras. But all of the above are within the meaning of "drone" - making your attempt to exclude the remotely piloted aircraft which coined the term, and those that still work that way, silly. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 17:01

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