(Source: Wall Street Journal Online)
At a drone conference in Washington, D.C., last year, the trade group running the event sent a not-so-subtle message to the journalists there: The Wi-Fi password was DONTSAYDRONES in the press room.
As the drone industry takes off, many people in it say it needs a different name. They say “drone” suggests the devices are dumb, it is technically inaccurate and now has a militaristic reputation. Unmanned-aircraft advocates scold reporters and even congressmen who use the term.
But they have another problem: Few of them agree on what the devices should be called.
“Maybe we call it the ‘crone’ for commercial drone?” said John Mulcahy, a patent attorney with clients in the commercial-drone industry.
The alternatives are an alphabet soup. There is “UAV” (unmanned aerial vehicle), “RPA” (remotely piloted aircraft), and “UAS” (unmanned aircraft system). Some prefer the more digestible “unmanned aircraft,” or just “robot,” while European Union officials opt for the bulkier “RPAS,” or remotely piloted aircraft systems.
“We need another name for it, but I’m not sure what that new name should be,” said Zack Porter, a venture-capital executive considering investments in commercial drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration is still working out rules for the commercial use of drones—which U.S. farmers, filmmakers and others have been flying in growing numbers, even without permission. But both the agency and Congress have settled on a name: they use UAS in legislation and official documents.
“If the FAA calls these things bullfrogs, then I’ll call them bullfrogs,” said Michael Toscano, chief executive for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group that urged reporters not to say “drones” last year.
Mr. Toscano said the term drone makes most people think “weaponized, hostile, large and autonomous.” He prefers UAS because it encompasses the entire system, including “the technology on the ground with the human at the controls,” he told Congress last year. “As I like to say, there’s nothing unmanned about unmanned systems.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) responded at that hearing: “I appreciate you telling us what we should call them, but…why don’t you leave that decision to us? We’ll decide what we’ll call them. You call them whatever you’d like to call them.”
But it isn’t hard to find advocates who drone on about why they don’t like the term UAS and its “unmanned” cousins. “I hate the word unmanned,” said Don Wirthlin, a drone-pilot instructor in Douglas, Ariz. “Last time I checked, I was a human flying a UAV.”
Ben Gielow, the former general counsel of the unmanned-aircraft trade group, said that “unmanned” isn’t ideal. “We have to stop defining the technology by what it’s not,” he said. “They used to call the car a horseless carriage.”
Some of the aerospace companies that shy away from using “drone” assign their devices intimidating-sounding names such as the Wasp, TigerShark, Predator and Reaper.
Other technical names for the devices touch on the number of propellers they have, such as a quadcopter or an octocopter. And then there’s Deutsche Post DHL’s delivery drone, which the company calls the Paketkopter.
The name confusion is a headache for some. “You try to explain what you do to your families on Thanksgiving…and no one knows what the hell a UAV is,” said Zach Rosenberg, a freelance journalist who covers drones.
Even the military can’t seem to agree on a name. For example, on their websites, the Army has used drone, the Navy has used UAV and the Coast Guard has used UAS. The Air Force’s preferred term, RPA, recently received endorsement from top brass.
“You will never hear me use the word ‘drone,’ and you’ll never hear me use the term ‘unmanned aerial systems,’ ” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in May. “Because they are not. They are remotely piloted aircraft.”
However, it was the military that originally nicknamed the devices “drones,” said Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer who has researched the history of the term. In 1935, the U.S. Navy began using unmanned aircraft as aerial targets for shooting practice. The British Royal Navy had named its unmanned target aircraft the Queen Bee, Mr. Zimmer said, so in homage, the Navy called its targets “drones,” which means male bee.
Many unmanned-aircraft enthusiasts say that is why the term drone is inaccurate—because it should refer only to aircraft used for target practice. But Mr. Zimmer disagrees, saying the military began arming unmanned aircraft and calling them “assault drones” in World War II.
As early as 1946, the media had picked up the term. “Drones, as the radio-controlled aircraft are called, have many potentialities, civilian and military,” the magazine Popular Science wrote that year.
During a question-and-answer session with U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.) at a drone conference this year, Dick Rumpf, head of a consulting firm, took the congressman to task for using the term drone. “If you guys stop using the word drone…the press won’t poison the minds of John Q. Public with thinking we’re going to be hitting them with weapons,” he said to applause.
“I totally agree with you,” Rep. LoBiondo replied. “I will try to sensitize my colleagues.”
Not everyone in the industry dislikes the word. Andrew Petersen, a drone videographer, named his Los Angeles company Drone Dudes. Sven Juerss, CEO of German drone maker Microdrones GmbH, said having the word in a company name helps customers find a firm. “Everyone types drones into Google, not UAS,” he said.
U.S. residents generally searched more for the term UAV than drone from 2004 through 2009, according to data from Google Trends, which tracks search-term volume. But in 2010, Google searches for “drone” soared past the alternatives and the term remains by far the top choice today, the data show.
Popular Science writer Kelsey Atherton, who writes weekly roundups of unmanned-aircraft news called “Keeping up with the droneses,” said opponents of the term should give up. “The battle is over and drone won,” he said.
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Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com