Screen shot from PBS NOVA program, “Rise of the Drones”

A drone and aerial robotics conference sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation is taking place in New York this weekend. In the first few hours of the conference, tension over whether to use the word “drone” to describe “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) or “remotely piloted aircrafts” (RPAs) became apparent.

Vijay Kumar, UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, who was invited to deliver a keynote talk, said he objected to the use of the word “drone.” Buddy Michini, a director of research for a company called Airware, said, I realize that the acronym UAS [Unmanned Air Systems] may seem like old time-y but it’s the industry-preferred nomenclature and I have been told don’t use the “D” word, which is drones.” Michael Toscano, president and CEO of Aerial Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said, “You’re the only audience I’ll say the word drone to.”

One of the hosts of the conference introducing speakers addressed this issue and said to the audience, “Why do we call this conference the Drone & Aerorobotics Conference? Because drone is a packed and loaded word and drone also has a specific meaning to people who are building and operating drones.”

“We are talking about flying robots generally,” he explained. “We are talking about both things that are remotely piloted, things that are halfway autonomous and fully autonomous in the past, in today, in the future and in the far future. Drones are really important if we’re talking about the zeitgeist. A lot of people just click with that term and they get the bundle of issues and the policy questions that we’re going to need to be answering.”

Why do individuals use “UAS,” “UAV,” or “RPA” instead of the term that people “just click with”? Does it even matter?

Officials, industry heads or military/intelligence officers refuse to use “drone” because they grasp the power of criticism directed at this new technology being used to revolutionize warfare and surveillance, in addition to helping first responders, rescue missions, agricultural production and scientific research.

Almost all of the individuals who will not use the word “drone” have ties to the military, law enforcement, defense contractors or businesses. They need to overcome fear and anxiety that the technology is being used for unlawful and senseless killing or that local law enforcement agencies will abuse the use of drones and violate privacy if they are allowed to purchase and operate drones.

Kumar, who has worked extensively with the development of robotics technology, has done industrial consulting and research for two major military defense contractors, Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin, since 2005. He appeared in a PBS Nova documentary, “Rise of the Drones,” that aired during a season of the production which Lockheed Martin funded.

In “Rise of the Drones,” David A. Deptula, a retired lieutenant general of the United States Air Force, said, “The United States Air Force uses the term ‘remotely piloted aircraft.’ They’re also known as ‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ or, as the media likes to call them, ‘drones.’ The United States Air Force uses the term “remotely piloted aircraft.” They’re also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or, as the media likes to call them, ‘drones.'”

Toscano informed the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 20, 2013:

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. 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.UAS are used to perform dangerous and difficult tasks safely and efficiently. They were used to assess the flooding of the Red River in the upper Midwest. They were used to help battle California wildfires. And they are being used to study everything from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, tornadoes in the Great Plains, and volcanoes in Hawaii.[emphasis added]

A former chief at AFRICOM, Martha McSally, testified before a Senate subcommittee on April 23:

…I use the term “remotely piloted aircraft,” which is my first point, instead of drones because I think that is part of the challenge. There is an information operations campaign by Al Qaeda going on against us. The word “drone” actually has a connotation that we’ve got these autonomous vehicles flying around and striking at will without a whole lot of oversight and scrutiny to them. So, the military does use the term “remotely piloted aircraft” to explain and to try and paint the picture that it actually takes 200 individuals to keep one of these aircrafts airborne for a 24 hour orbit and that 200 individuals include the operators, the intelligence personnel, the maintenance personnel. the equipment people, the lawyers, and, also, part of the process you have literally hundreds of other personnel that are involved in the process on the military side when you are actually conducting one of these operations. So, I will be using RPA throughout my testimony and that is certainly one of the points to make… [emphasis added]

This is the viewpoint of the National Security Agency, according to published documents from former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Worried that public perception could lead to drones being “brought under increased scrutiny, perceived to be illegitimate, openly resisted or undermined,” the NSA suggested in a report “‘drone strike’ should never be uttered, calling it ‘a loaded term.'”

As detailed by the Washington Post:

“Drones connote mindless automatons with no capability for independent thought or action,” the report said. “Strikes connote a first attack, which leaves the victim unable to respond. Other phrases employed to evoke an emotional response include ‘Kill List,’ ‘Hit Squads,’ ‘Robot Warfare,’ or ‘Aerial Assassins.’?”

Instead, the report advised referring to “lethal UAV operations.” It also suggested “elevating the conversation” to more-abstract issues, such as the “Inherent Right of Self-Defense” and “Pre-emptive and Preventive Military Action.”

The “hostile connotations” are actually valid concerns about the technology. The buzzing sound of drones flying overhead constantly in countries like Pakistan or Yemen is known to bring terror to families with no nexus to terrorism at all. Yet, rather than address opposition, US spy agencies, military defense contractors and drone or aerial robotics manufacturers would prefer to insist on using a different word in order to keep what they are advancing from seeming impure.

Attempting to reset the debate is their way of downplaying or outright ignoring the plethora of issues raised in reports, like this report from the Center for Civilians in Conflict or this report from Stanford/New York University.

Anyone who says they will not use the word “drones” because it enables critics, who are probably agents of al Qaeda, sympathetic to terrorists or privacy absolutists only help further expose the latest product of America’s military or security-industrial complex, which should be closely monitored, scrutinized and constrained so civil liberties and human lives around the world are protected.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."