On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal ran a story called “Why Some Drone Makers Hate the Word ‘Drone.'” It’s a well-written piece that outlines why opponents of the term don’t like it and ends with an appropriate assessment from Popular Science‘s Kelsey Atherton: “The battle is over and ‘drone’ won.”
Mr. Atherton is right. The battle is over. But, like most battles, it’s part of a larger conflict – getting the general public to understand and accept UAV technology.
As freelance journalist Zach Rosenburg told the Journal, “You try to explain what you do to your families on Thanksgiving…and no one knows what the hell a UAV is.”
I sympathize, Mr. Rosenburg.
So, instead of using Congressional hearings (and Twitter arguments) to debate what term to use, let’s see if we can’t focus that energy to address the real issue: educating the public.
…By any other name…
“The drone PR problem has to do with the use of drones, not the name of the thing. As soon as you change what you’re using them for, perception changes. That change doesn’t happen just by changing the name. A knife is a knife, right? You can use a knife to cut an apple or you can use it to kill someone. But the word is ‘knife.’ It’s a weapon but people use it in their kitchens every day.”
In the next few weeks, children all over the country will be using knives to saw grotesque patterns into the flesh of dying organisms to create symbols of reverence for souls stuck in limbo in preparation for a pagan holiday.
Or, you know, kids are carving pumpkins because it’s almost Halloween.
Perception is everything.
Any negative connotation of the word ‘drone’ has been artificially constructed by people who were searching for a term to describe a technology that was not fully understood (more on this in a bit).
As the commercial drone industry grows and the understanding of the technology becomes clearer, it comes down to the players in the space to change public perception by demonstrating all the practical applications drones have.
For example, Matternet is trying to change the perception of the word drone by using them to deliver medicine to remote villages in third world countries.
…Would fly so straight.
What a drone truly is, is a tool built to complete a specific job that requires no human interaction.
The concept of autonomy is the crux of this entire technology.
Like the self-driving car, these drones of tomorrow are meant to take humans (and, by extension, human error) out of the equation.
Part of the problem we are having with the term drone is due to the fact that we, the general public, know (consciously or subconsciously) that autonomy is the defining trait of drone technology. When we saw Jeff Bezos show the concept video for Prime Air last winter, we knew -through suspension of disbelief- that the drone was not being ‘piloted.’
That’s what a drone is.
Currently, the closest we can get to this concept is industrial fixed wing UAVs- robots that follow a pre-programmed flight path and collect data. The next step down from that is the ubiquitous DJI Phantom equipped with a Ground Station- you tell the drone where to go and it goes. You can control the camera remotely or not. In both cases, a human isn’t doing any of the actual flying.
What a drone is not is a guy flying a remote controlled camera above a crowd at the Staples Center.
Hell, by that logic the military’s Predator Drones aren’t even ‘drones’ because they are flown, remotely, by actual trained Air Force pilots.
In fact, would someone from the military please back me up?
“Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in June, ‘You will never hear me use the word ‘drone,’ and you’ll never hear me use the term ‘unmanned aerial systems’. Because they are not. They are remotely piloted aircraft.” (From the Wall Street Journal)
For better or worse the word ‘drone’ has stuck. We now find ourselves in the tricky position of waiting for the technology to advance to the point where the term fits that which it represents.
Over the next few years, further demonstrations from companies like Amazon and Google are going to bring us to the day when people understand a drone is a robot that flies autonomously to complete a job- a tool that solves a problem.
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