New Year Reflections: Shhh, Don’t Say ‘Drone’

When I did my Christmas gift shopping last month, every store I went to had some type of drone offering: Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, Target, Costco, BJ’s – you name it.

Why wouldn’t they, though? Over the past few years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), industry groups and law enforcement agencies have been sending out safety warnings and tips to prepare for the expected surge in drone sales over the holidays. The FAA has seemed to expect a surge every single holiday season: The agency rolled out drone registration and the Know Before You Fly drone safety campaign right before Christmas 2014 and 2015.

Moreover, the agency even recently said there are now more than twice as many drones as manned aircraft in U.S. airspace. Still, I can’t help but do a double take when I come face to face with the technology I’ve been reporting on for three years in the stores I’ve been shopping at for my entire life.

If we backtrack to 2014, the term “drone” itself certainly didn’t always give off the same vibe as it does today. In an interview with UAO back in March of that year, Michael Toscano, then-president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), held that the term brought forward a “hostile connotation” considering its usage in reference to both military and commercial applications.

During the first half of last year, I conducted a poll on our website to ask readers how they themselves feel about the term “drone” to describe the commercial and civil sector. In the end, out of roughly 300 responses, about half said they were comfortable with it, one-third said it gave a negative spin to the technology and the rest were indifferent.

Indeed, when I attended a NUAIR Alliance-hosted event near the FAA UAS test site in upstate New York in late 2014, AUVSI made a point to not refer to unmanned aircraft systems as “drones.” Mario Mairena, AUVSI’s senior government relations manager, noted his vehement opposition to the term and said it all comes down to “societal acceptance.”

It’s a different story now, as AUVSI and other industry groups do not stick exclusively to “unmanned aerial vehicle” or “unmanned aircraft system.” The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is even big on “drones” now; the longtime model aviation group even offers drone-focused events and Part 107 test prep.

From my own experiences, AUVSI certainly wasn’t wrong in its thinking. Heck, we’re called “Unmanned Aerial Online,” not “Drones Online.”

When I attended a wedding about a year-and-a-half ago, I had to delve into the topic of what I do for a living: I’m a reporter on drones, of course. After I got one quizzical look, without thinking, I immediately muttered, “The good ones – not the bad ones.”

No, I did not intend to paint a black-and-white picture of military drones as bad and commercial drones as good. I also certainly did not know I was seated next to a member of the U.S. Air Force (who kindly told me later that she took no offense to my flub). Too concerned about the negative connotation of the term “drone,” I had gotten used to quickly explaining all the non-military uses of unmanned systems (beyond Amazon drone delivery) to anyone who asked.

Well, for the most part, it looks like those days are coming to an end, albeit slowly.

Sure, I still do the aforementioned double take when I see drones in regular-old wholesale and department stores, and I still subconsciously take note of any drone-filmed shots in movies, TV shows and advertisements (as opposed to my formerly verbal “drone!” outcry whenever I came across a very clearly drone-captured segment), but I’ve seen the commercial industry’s dramatic growth spurt bring a new normalcy to the technology. CNN, for one, even has its own drone unit – dubbed CNN Aerial Imagery and Reporting, or CNN Air – and has inked federal permission to operate over people. Also, Aerial MOB deserves major props for that opening sequence on Dancing with the Stars during last season’s premiere.

If you do a “drone” search on Amazon, nearly 80,000 results pop up in the “toys & games” category. Not one result on the first page has the words “unmanned,” “UAV” or “UAS.” I could be wrong, but I don’t think any kid sat on Santa’s lap in December and pled for a “DJI unmanned aircraft system.”

Of course we don’t see drones casually flying through the air every day – there’s still a host of regulations and technology and safety advancements to be established before that can happen. For instance, the FAA is still allowing flights taking place at night, over people and beyond the visual line of sight of the operator only on a case-by-case basis.

Hobbyist model aircraft pilots have been flying for years; AMA was even founded back in the 1930s. Still, I can’t help but go through a series of questions in my head when I come across the ever-expanding lineups of drones I see in the store: Is this small enough to not require federal registration? Does this have geo-fencing? What is the age requirement on this thing? What if the owner lives near an airport and doesn’t notify air traffic control? Does this come in purple?

Though the paranoia and misunderstandings are starting to fade (note the dramatic decrease in the number of proposed local and state laws on drone operations since the FAA finally released Part 107 last year), there’s clearly still a fair amount of skepticism in terms of how prepared we – and national airspace – are for all these drones.

I think it’ll take more time to pass packaged quadcopters on my way to getting a cheesecake sample at Costco and not think anything other than “Is there a coupon this month?”

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