All in a word

The word drone conjures up interesting images in the minds of the general public: of sci-fi style killer robots heralding a new dawn in automated warfare or of the destruction wrought in rural villages in  Pakistan.  It is no wonder then that media coverage of a drone convention, held last week in Washington DC, made much of the industry’s dislike of the term including the anecdote that the wifi password at the event was “DontSayDrones”.  Those present seemed to prefer the term unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely piloted aircraft.  These more scientific, clinical sounding terms are seen as a method to ease public fear of drones and to make a positive contribution to the current commercial drive by manufacturers and suppliers for civil, domestic use.

This media strategy, to stop using the term drone, functions as an attempt to re-orient public perception of this technology.  An emphasis is also placed on the use of the word system, as in remotely piloted system, to highlight how the technology requires a human to be within the operational loop.  The president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International comments that the term drones instantly conjures up “mental images of large Predators firing missiles at hostile targets around the world” and “When you say the word ‘drone,’ you don’t think of a human being in control”.  However, the fact that so much has been made by journalists of efforts to change the terminology used is perhaps indicative of the futility of trying to remove this term from everyday use.  Indeed, the ACLU’s assessment of the terminology commented that” If the word “drones” has horrible connotations, it’s because the technology has in fact been associated with horrible things.”  In this respect, it echoes the increased use of euphemisms to describe aspects of conflict.  Terms such as the Northern Irish “Troubles” belied the reality of a conflict which saw over 3000 killed and lasted 30 years;  more recently, we have seen the manipulation of terms such as privately military contractor (a mercenary) or collateral damage (civilian casualties).

Drone manufactures have a point though, as a paper by Ulrike Esther Franke, in a joint report from the Royal United Services Institute and the University of Surrey showed: drones are the subject of misrepresentation by the media.  For example, she highlights the fact that all too often stories focused on the civil use of drones feature an image of an armed drone used in a military context.  This emphasis on military use hides the fact that the civil use of drones is already extensive and rapidly increasing.  The impact of this misinformation is a skewed public debate on the deployment of this technology and a lack of adequate attention paid to a key growth area.

It is not only the Americans who have concerns over the terminology used.  The recently announced Defence Select Committee’s inquiry  includes an examination of the nomenclature used to describe drones.  The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and other government departments have struggled in developing a consistent approach to their use of language.  The MoD refers to this technology, in response to Parliamentary Questions and Freedom of Information requests, as drones, remotely piloted air systems, unmanned aerial vehicles interchangeably and yet the Joint Doctrine 2/11, The UK approach to unmanned aircraft systems, makes it clear that the terms Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Systems should be the primary wording used, with Remotely Piloted Air Vehicles/Systems used when speaking to the media.  A similar lack of consistency is seen in the response gathered, via Freedom of Information requests, from police and fire services.

The APPG’s research on the civil use of drones has found a similar resistance to the use of the term, with British operators keen to use unmanned aerial vehicle rather than drone.  The APPG has always been clear on its use of the term “drones”.  It does not consider this to be a negative, pejorative term, rather it is used as a catch-all name (i.e. to include both aerial and maritime vehicles) and one which is instantly recognisable to the majority of people.  Terms such as unmanned aerial vehicle or remotely piloted vehicle, is the language of choice of industry and there seems no logical reason why the APPG should adopt this terminology especially as it is clear that the relationship between the APPG and drones is one of examination and assessment.

The ongoing debate about the language used to describe this  technology should be considered within the broader framework of how governments, businesses, and operators develop and deploy drones. Terminology can serve as a useful tool for understanding the motivations and missions of these organisations and is indicative of the current battle to increase the political and public acceptability of drones.

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