In defense of “drones”

Aerospace America, like other publications, has wrestled with what to call the rich variety of aircraft that are today giving hobbyists, consumers, filmmakers, farmers, troops and many others their first direct control over a bird’s eye of the terrain, along with many more applications to come.

Words matter in the magazine business and Aerospace America is no exception. When telling a story or presenting a headline, our most important job is to be understood by all readers. The considerations don’t end there, however. We need to do our best to avoid favoring one camp in the semantic wars over another. We can’t be euphemistic or overly concerned about offending, but we can’t sensationalize or distract readers by being intentionally provocative with our word choice.

So, what should we call this new breed of aircraft?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no single word or phrase that perfectly encapsulates them. The word that comes closest is drone, and you will start to see it in headlines and in the text of articles when warranted to refer to the broad range of designs in the breed.

There was a time when drone was applied only as shorthand for military or CIA aircraft equipped with cameras or missiles and cameras. People in the business of building highly networked aircraft took offense because the word incorrectly conveyed an unsophisticated flying machine “droning” away up there. Troops and commanders who take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously objected to the incorrect implication that no one was in control or held responsible. Anti-war activists branded drone to mean robotic death from the skies.

Those connotations and usages still exist but they are no longer predominant.

For starters, the word “drone” now also refers to the smallest aircraft in the breed. That’s a relief, because arguing that a 3 kilogram quadcopter should be called an “unmanned” system or vehicle was always a non sequitur. No one needs to be told that something that small is unmanned. Drone is losing its universally negative connotations too. At last year’s AUVSI Xponential conference, the FAA announced the formation of a “Drone Advisory Committee.” Thousands of consumers regularly buy drones at websites with that word in the name. Even NASA is assisting with software and technologies for “drone traffic management.”

So, we believe we are on solid ground to move drone off the nearly forbidden list. As a story unfolds, we will, of course, specify whether we are referring to hobbyist quadcopters equipped with cameras or the large, fixed wing variety, including Predators, Reapers or Global Hawks. At times, it will be clearer to say unmanned aircraft or plane, and so we’ll do that in those cases.

Of course, one thing I can say for sure is that this market is so dynamic that there will never be a last word on this matter of semantics.

Related Topics

Aircraft Design

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

In defense of “drones”