What is a drone? Twenty years ago, the answer was easy. Ignoring the definitions having to do with insects, a drone was a term strictly used for a military autonomous flying vehicle. Drones were (mostly) used for target practice or for gathering intelligence (reconnaissance). Along came a company called Dragan that made one of the first commercially available quadrocopters (the DraganFlyer) and the term Quad Helicopter was born.
Their first commercially available multicopter was simply called the Quad Helicopter and came out in 1997 (it is shown in the following image):
The original DraganFlyer Quad Helicopter (1997). Picture courtesy of DraganFlyer
In the 2000s, the term drone became synonymous with military strikes. Between the United States Presidents Bush and Obama, the United States racked up many attacks on targets with connections to terrorism. So, the term "drone" had an ominous implication.
In 2010, Parrot came out with a multicopter that implemented augmented reality (AR) on a cell phone. This game allowed players to shoot down each other's real-life multicopters. The multicopter was titled the AR Drone (probably as a marketing attempt to capitalize on the ominous nature of the term drone). Really, it was the first multicopter you could buy in your local shopping mall and plaza (it was available at all Sharper Image stores). The public finally had its first look at multicopters. There it was—Drone stamped in all-caps on the front of the box.
Who could resist? I had spent days, weeks, years (even) building drones by tearing apart other electronics to get accelerometers, GPS modules, and other components to build my own drone. Could it really be so easy that all I had to do was go down to the mall and buy one? Yes. The following image shows me in 2010 testing out an AR Drone bought from Sharper Image:
Testing an AR Drone (1.0) in 2010 from "Sharper Image" (Pacifica, CA)
In 2011, the glory of military drones got a big stain. It turned out that these surgical drone strikes were sometimes taking out civilians, US citizens in foreign countries, and missing terrorists all together. Suddenly the term drone was becoming something that the general public associated with fear and even rage. Protests ensued (as shown in the following image):
Creative Commons Picture by: Fibonacci Blue
Soon, turnkey systems (like the DJI Phantom) were available with cameras already installed and sold at big-box retailers. This led to privacy concerns from opponents to the craft. They had been handed a new term for multicopters on a silver platter, a term that struck fear and loathing into the hearts of people all around the planet. A term even synonymous with murder-drone. In the following image, you can see the first in the line of DJI Phantom drones:
The DJI Phantom (version 1) - The first of the most popular drone line ever created. Those three prongs on the center of the hull are a mount for a GoPro camera
The multicopter community resisted the term drone with all its might. People were in hysterics. In Santa Rosa, California (2013), a police officer even confiscated a property owner's drone. He was flying it over his own vineyards and posting the videos on YouTube. The police officer stated that it would be a matter of months before you saw fly by shootings. The police department had no legal standing and was forced to return the Phantom.
Legislators around the country were making local laws against drones. In Los Angeles (the area that hosts Hollywood and the bulk of the aerial cinematography industry), drones were outlawed. (Later these laws would be overturned as the FAA finally stepped in and stated that local and state governments had no jurisdiction over airspace.) At the time, it looked as if drones may just go the way of the condor. But then something wonderful happened.
The industry stopped resisting the term drone. I remember on my first drone book with Packt, Building Multicopter Video Drones, resisting the word drone in the title. But they convinced me it would be good for search engine food. As we (in the industry) stopped resisting the term and started educating the public about the safety, best practices, and usefulness of drones the negative implications lost all meaning. And (as in the following image), drones even took on an entirely new meaning:
A group of drone pilots from "Humanitarian Drones" and FEMA team members assisting in Port Arthur, TX during Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Photo by Daniel Herbert (of Humanitarian Drones)
Suddenly, drones were saving lives (with search and rescue), helping people recover from disasters (with assessment of damage, as shown in the following image), and responsible for great shots in feature films and people's favourite documentaries. Then, something completely weird happened:
A DJI Inspire 2 conducting damage assessment and mapping in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Photo taken by Brian Scott of Humanitarian Drones
Drones were no longer multicopters. The term covered anything that flew under remote control. This happened with the FAA's small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) rules. The media dubbed these rules drone legislation. Suddenly, drones had wings, even jet engines. Now, they didn't even have to fly autonomously, the radio-controlled airplane that grandpa flew on weekends was a drone.
Then, it went further. The guidance systems used in multicopter drones were being repurposed to control ground vehicles (rovers) and water vehicles (boats and submersibles). Now, in 2017, you actually hear companies coming out with underwater drones.
In short, the answer to the original question, "What (exactly) is a drone?" is simply a robot-a vehicle of any type that is either not controlled by a human (autonomous) or controlled by a human via remote control. It may not be the Oxford English Dictionary's definition, but it is the definition that the common public accepts when they hear the word drone.
And, as for the proof that we're living in the Drone Era? In the height of the space age (the mid-1980s), men on rocket packs flew into stadiums for the opening ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics, and even during the Super Bowl XIX half-time show. Now, we have drone-shows for those same venues. Of course, we still have a ways to go for full-tilt drone acceptance. After all, the drone part of the half-time show had to be filmed days earlier for fear of a drone attack during the show, or at least fear of mass hysteria in the venue. But we'll take it.