When you read or hear the word “drone,” is your first thought, “killer robot?” The leaders of the drone industry fear it is, which is why they’re hoping to persuade the news media to stop using a nice, clear, five-letter English word and instead clutter their reports with eye-glazing acronyms such as UAS, UAV, RPA.
How seriously do drone makers take this issue? Journalists logging onto the Wifi in the Media Room at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington this week had to use this password: “DONTSAYDRONES.”
AUVSI, the Air Force, the Navy, the Army and many defense industry leaders just hate the word “drones.” The Media Room Wifi login password, clearly, was a clever — but feeble — attempt to condition the media to drop a word whose primary definition used to be “lazy male bee” but today is a popular synonym for unmanned aircraft. The trade group and many of its members prefer the terms “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS) or “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAV) or “remotely piloted aircraft” (RPA) or, as they’re officially known in Europe, “remotely piloted aircraft systems” (RPAS)
“The average person on the street, and even intelligent and informed people, when they think of the word ‘drone,’ they think of the military, they think hostile, they think weaponized, they think large and they think autonomous,” argues AUVSI’s president, Michael Toscano, especially after several years of Code Pink protests against drone strikes. That connotation is not only inaccurate but damaging, he told me, to a nascent industry whose products range in size from aircraft as big as an airliner to aerial vehicles that can fit in the palm of your hand, and whose potential peaceful uses far outnumber their role in combat operations and CIA targeted killings.
Show a person a range of photos of unmanned aircraft, however, and “if you say the word ‘drone,’ 80 percent will pick the picture of a Predator – that’s what’s wrong,” Toscano said, referring to the General Atomics MQ-1, the first armed UAS used in combat and the CIA’s favorite weapon in the U.S. war with Al Qaeda and the terrorist group’s allies.