As security professionals, law enforcement, and others learn more about Counter-UAS or airspace awareness and protection, many come across references to “UAS Groups,” or they might hear a discussion where someone will mention “Group 1 and 2 UAS,”  “small UAS or sUAS” or other similar terms. What does all this mean?

There is no universally accepted standard regarding the classification of UAS (Uncrewed Aircraft Systems). Different defense agencies and civilian entities have their own criteria and categorization methods. The Department of Defense (DOD)and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are examples of many agencies that have categorized UAS.

One common approach to classifying UAS is based on size, range, and endurance. Additionally, the military often employs a tier system for its classification purposes. Weight categories are also commonly used as a basis for classification. In the United States, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration classifies UAS that weigh 55 pounds or less as small UAS (sUAS).

Although many organizations have categorized UAS, the DoD and NATO classifications are briefly explored in this article.

Department of Defense UAS Groups

The DoD categorizes unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) based on their maximum gross takeoff weight, size, normal operating altitude, and airspeed.

Chart depicting the five DoD UAS Groups
Department of Defense UAS Groups Chart (Image Credit: DroneShield)


Group 1 – UAS typically less than 20 pounds in weight; normally
operate below 1200 feet above ground level (AGL) at speeds less than
250 knots (Raven, DJI Mavic 3, Parrot Anafi, Skydio X2)

Group 2 – UAS typically are in the 21 – 55 pound weight class;
normally operate below 3500 feet AGL at speed less than 250 knots
(Scan Eagle)

Group 3 – These UAS weigh more than 55 pounds, but less than 1320
pounds. They normally operate below 18,000 feet mean sea level
(MSL) at speeds less than 250 knots (Shadow, Integrator)

Group 4 – These UAS weigh more than 1320 pounds; normally
operate below 18,000 feet MSL at any speed (Fire Scout, Predator,
Gray Eagle)

Group 5 – These UAS weigh more than 1320 pounds; normally
operate higher than 18,000 feet MSL at any speed (Reaper, Global
Hawk/Triton, UCLASS)

Generally, larger unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) necessitate a greater need for infrastructure, including shelters, runways, airfields, or airports. This requirement extends to personnel and logistics support, such as fuel, ammunition, and maintenance.

NATO UAS Classes

During the UAV meeting in September 2009, the NATO Joint Capabilities Group established a classification system for unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The UAS were divided into three categories: CLASS I, II, and III, with each class further divided into subcategories based on specific parameters. While parameters like altitude and mission radius provide guidance, the weight of the UAV is the primary determinant for its classification, taking precedence over other factors.

Class I UAS, being smaller in size, are typically portable, hand-launched, and operated by an individual controller. They generally have a range of less than 20 miles and an endurance of up to two hours. A unit can quickly deploy these UAS due to their simplicity of launch and recovery. They can be tracked using a force-tracking system. Class I UAS are sub-categorized as micro, mini, and small.

Class II UAS are medium-sized tactical systems that can fly up to 10,000 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) with a mission radius of 200 kilometers (line of sight).

On the other hand, Class III fixed-wing UAS, unlike Class I, requires runways for launch and recovery and additional logistical support and infrastructure. They also have more airspace management considerations comparable to manned aircraft. Class III UAS include Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) and High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) aircraft.

Chart depicting the three classes of UAS as defined by NATO
NATO UAS Classification Chart


So if you hear an individual mention the terms, Group 1 and 2 UAS, they are referring to those drones that weigh 55 pounds or less. NATO classifies drones that weigh 55 pounds or less as Class I. As mentioned, the FAA classifies Group 1 and 2 drones as small UAS or sUAS.

The terms “Counter-Small Unmanned (or Uncrewed) Aircraft System” or “C-sUAS” generally refer to tactics and technologies used to counter drones that weigh less than 55 lbs (give or take!).

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