A UAV is an unmanned aerial vehicle. In the old days, a home-made unmanned aerial vehicle would be called a model airplane, or perhaps an RC (radio-controlled) plane. But the fancy-pants term UAV is well earned these days because of the amazing things amateur enthusiasts can do with them. It’s remarkably close to what much more expensive military UAVs can do.
For example, I read a fascinating article in Make magazine about the GPS-driven autopilot you can put into your kit. Sadly, the article is not online, but the article’s author Chris Anderson (who happens to be editor in chief at Wired magazine), runs a whole web site called DIY Drones. They’ll help you get started, and when you’re ready they’ll sell you an miniature open source inertial navigation unit that costs less than $100. That’s something that couldn’t be had for less than a hundred times that cost only a few years ago. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a device that can go spy on your neighbors. I won’t dwell on the point, but you can easily imagine many more mischievous uses for a cheap easily built spy plane.
If you make them small and nimble enough, you can fly indoors. Here’s a simple blimp that can pilot itself around your building, but the engineers at MIT have made something much niftier: precision-controlled helicopters. This video is especially impressive.
Here’s a Popular Mechanics article from last year about MIT’s indoor flight lab: Crash-Proof UAVs Fly Blind at MIT’s RAVEN Aerospace Controls Lab. I wish I had this stuff back when I was in grad school!