Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

Drone-makers have a universal target they’d like to take out: the name of their product.

The industry has quietly gone on the offensive against the word “drones” as its business broadens beyond the military missions long associated with them.

Drone-makers and enthusiasts are quick to correct anyone who uses the term and to suggest their preferred alternatives. They say the term “drone” is insulting – a point driven home when the industry’s lobbying group last year made the WiFi password for reporters attending a conference “Dontsaydrones.”

So why the blowback?

Ben Gielow, who works for that industry group – the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International – said the word evokes images that up-and-coming manufacturers don’t want to be saddled with.

“When folks hear the word drone they usually think of large, military, weaponized systems,” Gielow said. “That’s not what the commercial use of these things will look like.”

Consumers might associate the word “drone” with the controversial strikes associated with a system like this, the infamous General Atomics Predator with strong San Diego ties.

Image via General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Image via General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

These are far different from commercial unmanned flying objects, many of which look more like this.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

That’s not the only concept Gielow and others in the industry find distasteful. The word drone is associated with a not-so-intelligent machine that’s disappeared from the military’s arsenal.

The earliest drones were simply used for target practice. They weren’t known for their brilliance.

“It was just sort of a dummy system that was out flying around and being used by the military to shoot down for target practice,” Gielow said.

Today’s unmanned systems are much smarter, and humans control and monitor their movements, Gielow said, so calling these sophisticated systems drones sells them short. He and others who promote their expansion prefer to use a cornucopia of acronyms to describe their devices.

The drone industry hasn’t had broad success getting their terms to catch on – or in persuading regular folks not to use the term “drone.”

The reason is pretty simple. Do you know what a UAV is? ( Hint: No, we’re not talking about ultraviolet rays.) How about a SUA? Neither do most people. Many journalists – myself included – and even industry heavyweight Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics are hesitant to ditch a word that most Americans (mostly) understand.

But the industry has managed to persuade government regulators to use terms beyond “drone.”

Here are some of them.

UASs or unmanned aircraft systems: This is basically an aircraft plus other equipment, a network or radio connection and a human who controls it remotely. This umbrella phrase has caught on with the Department of Defense and the FAA Modernization and Reform Act passed in 2012. Many industry folks, including Gielow’s group, use it frequently.

SUAs or small unmanned aircraft: The 2012 legislation classified any craft weighing less than 55 pounds in this category. Most hobbyists fly systems this size but the military uses them too. For example, the U.S. Air Force deploys a handful of lethal and non-lethal versions, including the RQ-11 Raven and Wasp III, both produced by Southern California company AeroVironment.

UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles: This term got lots of ink post-Sept. 11. In 2002, the Department of Defense offered a fairly complicated definition:  “Powered aerial vehicles sustained in flight by aerodynamic lift over most of their flight path and guided without an onboard crew. They may be expendable or recoverable and can fly autonomously or piloted remotely.”

Many in the drone industry were on board with this designation for a while but it’s fallen out of favor in some circles. The U.S. Army still uses it sometimes.

RPAs or remotely piloted aircrafts: This is the U.S. Air Force’s preferred name for sophisticated drones like the Predator or Global Hawk, both produced by companies with a significant San Diego presence. The Air Force says these systems can carry out “many of the same missions as manned aircraft” such as strikes, air support, and search and rescue but aren’t constrained by humans or life-support tools they require.

Model aircraft: These are flying objects capable of sustained flight. The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act said they can only be flown by hobbyists and must remain within the line of sight of the person controlling them.

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – What Local Drones Can Do for You (and Lady Gaga) – and the next in our series – Four Myths About San Diego’s Drone Industry.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.