2013-11-27

Co.Labs

How Did "Drone" Become Such A Dirty Word?

The term is about as politically charged as tech vocabulary can be. Should we stop using it?



In 2013, the word "drone" has referred to a number of gadgets: on one end of the drone spectrum, there’s a $300 consumer quadcopter that you can buy at a Toys R’ Us that is a “drone”. On the other, you have a $4 million piece of advanced government hardware that can do everything from monitor forest fires in order to assist with their containment to the deployment of surgical CIA-led missile strikes.

Both of them make headlines, but for different reasons. And it’s causing headaches for advocates and researchers who build these devices. The world of drones is suffering from an image problem.

Where Drones Are Born

The annual Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC), which took place last October at New York University, is a three-day “multidisciplinary conference about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones--with an emphasis on civilian applications.”

The conference’s opening speaker, University of Pennsylvania professor Vijay Kumar, had perhaps the most telling quotation of the day: Scientific American quoted the roboticist’s insistence that his creations aren’t drones but “aerial robots,” as the word "drone" “implies my robots are stupid, and they’re not. They think for themselves.”

Kumar speaks about drones all over the place--take a look at his bio on the conference website, or watch his TED talk about his work on aerial robotics systems that can be used in emergency response situations. Notice something missing? Indeed, Kumar does not use the D-word once.

But even if he didn’t believe the word "drone" contrasted directly with the hard work Kumar has put into distributed intelligence, it’s still hard to imagine that he’d want to be associated with it: Do a quick Google image search on "drone," and you’ll probably get shots like this filling your page:

How about something a little less anecdotal? Here’s a look at a Google Trends search for the term "drone":

Almost every major news headline corresponding to a spike in search interest corresponds to the use of military drones, most often regarding drone strikes. A recent Al Jazeera story dedicated to analyzing the effectiveness of "drone warfare," as well as the arguments for and against it, mentions the word "drone" 44 times without bothering to distinguish just what, exactly, a drone is.

That would seem to posit that it doesn’t matter--the zeitgeist dictates that drones are remote-controlled aerial machines that are outfitted with weapons for controversial military strikes, most often made by the U.S. government. Hell, it was even a major subplot on Homeland. Except that’s not what the word means. You know who says so? The U.S. government.

A May 2013 blog post for the publication DefenseNews elaborates:

What the average person on the street calls “drones” have different nomenclatures inside the five-sided building. And if you use the wrong term--say, calling something a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) versus RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) in a story--you’ll hear about it, either from irate officials or irate readers.

It’s not just a matter of technical nomenclature, either. The etymology of the word "drone" in this context--meaning "pilotless aircraft"--goes back to the 1930s. The British Royal Navy had developed a radio-controlled aircraft for the purpose of anti-aircraft gunnery practice, a training exercise far too dangerous to have a live pilot participate in. They called the aircraft the Queen Bee. When Adm. William Standley, the chief of U.S. Naval Operations, saw a demonstration of the Queen Bee, he then commissioned a similar program, calling his aircraft a drone as an homage to the Queen Bee. The name stuck--but it wasn’t until recently that the term meant anything more than an automated aircraft to be shot at.

For the more versatile, expensive machines that are controlled remotely like the oft-photographed Predator, the proper designation is either UAV or UAS: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or Unmanned Aerial System.

Although their initial use was military, publications like Popular Science were proclaiming the potential civilian purposes for drones as early as 1946. But it has only been recently that such applications have flourished, and with them, an entirely different concern: privacy. The rapid proliferation of affordable, remote-control drones with affixed cameras like the Parrot AR has the public concerned for their privacy and civil rights, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a story on this species of flying machine without coming across the words “surveillance” or “spy.”

With the D-word inhabiting such a hotbed of political connotations, is it best to follow Professor Kumar’s practice and abandon it altogether? Would using more technically accurate terms to distinguish simple quadcopters from expensive weapons of warfare help much? Drone and data journalist Matthew Schroyer, who runs the blog The Mental Munition Factory, argues that it does:

At least using a technically accurate term opens the door to a more intelligent conversation about the technology, and one that isn’t burdened by years of association with death and destruction. It’s a chance to revise an overly-specific and incorrect definition.

In other words: These aren’t drones. They’re “unmanned aircraft.”

Over time, it’s more than possible that drones will be able to shed much of the current stigma surrounding them. It wouldn’t be without precedent. Hackers used to be portrayed as cyberpunk anarchists--and to some extent, the image persists. But hackers aren’t just criminals who steal your data, they’re also the programmers who participate in code jams and hackathons developing the software we use every day, and the hacker ethos has found an innocuous way of going mainstream via the concept of life hacking and growth hacking.

Drones, then, can also come to mean more than one thing in the public consciousness, if we’re willing to talk about them as such. Maybe then the efforts of engineers and scientists and developers to use a technology to better our lives wouldn’t be buried by the fear that we’ve attached to it.