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UAVs, UASs, RPAs, unmanned aircraft, whatever you want to call them: They’re drones.
The guys who are posed to make a killing off them want you to know they’re not going to be doing it by killing. The thing is, everyone would have known that by now if they hadn’t spent so much time having fun with acronyms.
Somewhere between Jeff Bezos flying on one of the country’s important news programs, a Minnesota company delivering beer with one, and the hundreds of news articles written daily on the subject, people have gotten the idea that a 3 pound hexacopter is not quite the same as a Predator drone.
When is the last time your coworker asked if you heard about the beer delivering remotely piloted aircraft or you read an article about Amazon’s unmanned aerial systems?
This week in Forbes, Glen Martin notes that “It’s as though drones have been painted with a giant red “D,” á la The Scarlet Letter. Manufacturers of the aircraft, not surprisingly, are desperate to rehabilitate the technology’s image, and properly so.” He wonders if "it would help if we didn't call them drones."
Maybe it would have helped five years ago. Today, it does nothing. Legislators call them drones, the media calls them drones, I call them drones, everyone calls them drones. It’s just what they’re going to be called. If the industry is going to rehabilitate the technology’s image, start by getting in front of the problems, not hiding behind a name.
If the Senate calls up Google to talk about some serious privacy flaw in GChat, the company wouldn’t spend the first few minutes going on a diatribe about how the thing is actually called Google Talk so-could-you-get-that-right-first-please? And yet, that’s exactly what Michael Toscano, CEO of AUVSI, the largest drone consortium in the world, did last March at a hearing discussing the future of the technology.
“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,” he said. “The term ‘drone’ also carries with it a hostile connotation and does not reflect how UAS are actually being used domestically.”
When I contacted him today, he said the same thing, noting that it’s a “hostile” term and that it was “originally coined in reference to pilotless aircraft used for target practice.” Well, a “phone” was once a useless, screenless device that didn’t have Flappy Bird on it.
Toscano is right in noting that, no, drones in the United States (most of them, anyway) are not the same as drones in the Middle East. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Instead of arguing semantics, maybe he should take a swing at addressing some of the real concerns people have with the technology.
According to a December Rasmussen Reports poll, 60 percent of Americans oppose the use of drones by police agencies, and 50 percent oppose the use of drones for package delivery. The public isn’t treating the proliferation of drones skeptically because they associate the term with killings in the Middle East, they’re treating it that way because there are real, serious questions about how they will be used by law enforcement, how they will be regulated, whether their civil liberties will be violated or not (the answers, by the way, are: extensively, who knows, and maybe).
Toscano notes drones have been used to monitor volcanoes and assess flooding and battle wildfires. All of that is well and good, but had he just started calling them drones once it became obvious that’s what everyone else in the world was going to do, maybe it wouldn’t be a hostile word anymore. To be fair, he's not the only one who has made this argument.
While AUVSI has been arguing semantics, others have started the PR machine they’ve been lacking. Lakemaid, the Minnesota microbrewery that delivered beer and was recently shut down by the FAA, has received almost nothing but positive press since then. Timothy Reuter, founder of the DC Drone User group, a group of hobbyists who fly the things, has become one of the go-to sources of information about drones. I’ve written about them for Salon, Jake Tapper has been to one of their fly-ins. He’s embraced the term—“If we called ourselves the remote control club of Washington, D.C., you would not be here talking to me,” he told Tapper.
It’s time for the drone industry at large to get over its identity crisis and embrace the basic intelligence of the American people. Even Sen. Jay Rockefeller said it’s “fairly simple to separate [military and commercial drones] in our mind.”
Once your product gets out into the public consciousness, we reserve the right to call it what we want. You can try to reframe the conversation or you can try to come up with something catchier or different. That may have been an achievable goal three years ago; it isn’t anymore.
The branding war is over, and the alphabet-soup crowd has lost.
Serious people in the industry know it’s a losing battle. Why doesn’t Toscano?
“I think the battle for terminology is over. I think the public understands what ‘drone’ means, and I think that, in the future, as the benefits become apparent, the attitude of the public toward what the word ‘drone’ means will expand,” says Brendan Schulman, head of the first commercial “drone” law group in the United States. “I think the industry will continue to have its own terminology, just like we do in the legal industry. In many industries, you see insiders refer to something in a certain way, and the public calls it something else.”
So yes, at the AUVSI conferences, and with the FAA, keep using your acronyms. In the meantime, we’ll be talking about the real issues. And we’ll be calling them drones.