A drone by any other name

Eons ago, back in 2002 when I was a young and energetic undergraduate student, I was introduced to a curious class of flying gizmo called an “X-4 flyer”. This queer little beastie had four rotors and an X-shaped frame, hence the name.

Through changing the rotor speeds, it was able to loft itself into the air and even manoeuvre somewhat. The archaic technology meant that an expert pilot was required to give it any semblance of flight control. Even then, a sophisticated (now laughably dated) gyroscope feedback system was required to control it at all. But to an aspiring neophyte engineer, it was captivating.

Since then, the name and technology have changed, but the attraction of the little machines persists. Today, I call it a quadrotor, even if others insist on the linguistically-tortured portmanteau of quadcopter*. There was a period where every research group on the planet insisted on calling it different things, and even the same thing with different spelling: quadrotor, quad rotor, quad-rotor, quadcopter, quad copter, quad-copter, X-4 flyer, X4-Flyer, Roswell Flyer, Draganflyer, and the much more pragmatic “four rotor helicopter”. As it was, just as the research field finally settled on ‘quadrotor’ (one word, no spaces), the media caught wind and immediately leapt upon the name “quadcopter”, which seems to have gained popular currency.

I tracked down the antecedent term used to describe this type of aircraft. Although the earliest examples of flying contraptions with four rotors, such as the Breguet-Richet Gyroplan 1 and Oehmichen No.2, were named, their inventors never (to my knowledge) categorised the vehicle class itself. The earliest usage I found was the Convertawings Model A Quadroto. The aircraft is referred to as the Model A, while similar concepts are called “quadrotors”. Thus, I would argue, ‘quadrotor’ has the virtues of both primacy and correctness!

Convertawings Model A Quadrotor

The word ‘drone’, likewise, has a history. Among academics, ‘drone’ is used to describe remote-piloted –especially radio-controlled – aircraft. I hesitate to use it, as it calls to mind mindless, stinging insects – pests – especially when ‘drone strike’ is synonymous with extrajudicial killing of individuals. But few recall that the name comes from early work with modified Fairey IIIF float planes, called the Fairey Queen – radio-controlled aircraft, launched from ships.

This led directly to the de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes, specialised radio-controlled aerial targets. Called the DH.82 Queen Bee, the aircraft was perhaps the first truly successful, mass-produced, unmanned aircraft. Following its popularity, such aircraft were dubbed ‘drones’ as they were all the offspring of the queen bee!

Today, people use ‘quadcopter’ and ‘drone’ interchangeably – without regard for what the terms of art mean, or even linguistic sensibility – but I cannot blame them. ‘Quadcopter’ is fun to say, and ‘drone’ is incidentally descriptive of the humming buzz of their rotors. The fascination of and the public’s intersecting passion and anxiety for miniature flying things mean that we will not stop talking about them for a long time to come.

*quad, of course, is Latin for four, and rotor is Latin for spinning-thing. Copter is, in fact, a mangling of the Greek helico-pter meaning "helix wing", and so the name would more be properly rendered as tetrapter.

History of the Drone

Artist: James North

Artist: James North

A show poster for Thurston the Great Magician
A show poster for Thurston the Great Magician