How The Term ‘Drone’ Colors Perceptions Of The Technology

Posted by Daniel DePalma on March 25, 2014 No Comments
Categories : UAVs

In recent years, the term ‘drone’ has become a broad designation that is applied to the spectrum of unmanned aircraft, from military planes soaring in the far reaches of airspace to quadcopters whirring about in a park. That all-encompassing definition is a sticking point to some stakeholders in the commercial and civil unmanned aircraft space.

For one, Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, is irked by the term ‘drone.’

Toscano testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2013 regarding domestic drone usage by law enforcement agencies, and his opening statement reflected his uneasiness with the word.

‘You have probably noticed that I do not use the term 'drone.' The industry refers to the technology as unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, because they are more than just a pilotless vehicle,’ Toscano said. ‘A UAS also includes the technology on the ground, with a human at the controls. As I like to say, there is nothing unmanned about an unmanned system.

‘The term 'drone' also carries with it a hostile connotation and does not reflect how UAS are actually being used domestically,’ he added.

Toscano went on to explain that the UAS most likely to be used by public safety agencies bear little resemblance to military drones, emphasizing that weaponization of domestic UAS is a ‘non-starter.’ He recently reiterated his trepidation with the term for a national audience as part of an interview for 60 Minutes.

As Toscano highlighted, ‘drone’ does not accurately describe everything that entails a UAS. Yet, the issue he has with the word seems to stem more from its ‘hostile’ connotation than anything else. In his statement to the Senate committee, Toscano remarked that ‘the technology is new to many Americans, and their opinions are being formed by what they see in the news.’

And therein lies the problem. Although the prospect of drones flying in the U.S. national airspace system has garnered attention of late, the American public has long encountered the term in only one specific context: drone strikes. Reports of UAS being employed as a military weapon have dominated major media outlets' coverage of the technology, and consequently, that association has been burned into the collective American consciousness.

Toscano's aversion to the term ‘drone’ is, therefore, understandable. Drones can be, as Morley Safer put it on 60 Minutes, ‘impersonal killing machines that patrol the badlands overseas.’ Or, drones can be robotic couriers that deliver pharmacy items to homes. For those with an interest in using UAS for civil and commercial purposes in the U.S., an association with death is certainly not ideal.

However, the term ‘drone’ is ubiquitous in the media when referencing any kind of UAS, regardless of whether the aircraft in question is a Global Hawk or Phantom 2 Vision. The word seems unavoidable.

But just because the term has entered the American vernacular does not signify that its meaning is static. Language is fluid, and words and meanings change over time. If the nascent UAS industry someday achieves consequential penetration in the U.S. market, the public will regularly encounter the multi-rotor systems that are currently on the precipice of flying in the skies overhead.

With familiarity comes acceptance, and eventually, the term ‘drone’ may more often refer to a quadcopter whirring about in a park than anything else.

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