When a Drone is Not a Drone

It’s unfortunate that language is often used carelessly. We frequently react to news emotionally rather than analytically; and when imprecise language elicits groundless fear, our reaction can be the same as if the fear were justified. The current popular trend of referring to recreational quadcopters as “drones” is a glaring example, having inspired legislation against threats that exist only in the vacuum left by the lack of aviation literacy.

The quintessential drone: an MQ-9 Reaper, which is used by the military and can fly autonomously. Via Wikimedia.

The quintessential drone: an MQ-9 Reaper, which is used by the military and can fly autonomously. Via Wikimedia.

Drones—according to popular usage—are used in war. It’s believed that drones armed with Hellfire missiles kill insurgents in Afghanistan (which is untrue). Drones are believed to be bad (at least, that’s what we’re often led to think). And, unfortunately, at some point, somebody used the word drone in reference to recreational, remote-controlled quadcopters, and it stuck. The result is that this specific segment of remote-controlled aircraft (and no other) has triggered a tsunami of consumer and bureaucratic panic, resulting in an unprecedented landslide of regulatory restrictions. I argue that these painful impacts to both recreation and commerce are due entirely to imprecise (and usually wrong) usage of the word drone.

A homemade remote-controlled glider plane, which shares most of the same characteristics as hobbyist devices often mislabeled as "drones."

A homemade remote-controlled glider plane, which shares most of the same characteristics as hobbyist devices often mislabeled as “drones.”

Strictly speaking and historically, a drone—meaning “worker”—is autonomous, able to do its job without tying up a human operator. (Some dictionaries now broaden the term to include non-autonomous craft, thus rendering it meaningless.) Weather balloons are drones. Certain military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are drones, but the majority—certainly those firing missiles—are absolutely not drones. They are remote piloted, and have humans at the controls. Although the media often wrongly calls them drones, the military correctly calls them UAVs. This literacy error by the media is, I believe, what made drone a risky word.

Hobbyists have been flying remote-controlled aircraft for many decades, including gliders, ducted fan jets, multi-engine bomber models, helicopters, and, more recently, quadcopters. Like military UAVs, they have humans at the controls. They are not drones, and nobody ever thought to mislabel them as drones. No one category of remote-controlled aircraft has even been any more or less likely than any other to pose a threat, invade privacy, or serve a commercial purpose. Commercial camera crews have employed remote-controlled helicopters as low-cost camera ships for decades, without ever exciting regulatory panic. So why now, and why only quadcopters?

A provisional version of the quadcopter to be used by Amazon's proposed PrimeAir delivery program.

A provisional version of the quadcopter to be used by Amazon’s proposed PrimeAir delivery program.

Because we call them drones, that’s why. Media ignorance of aviation practices gave the word a negative connotation, and whoever first applied it to quadcopters transferred that negative connotation to them. As a result, nonsensical laws now stymie their use. Nonsensical they are: electric quadcopters can no longer be used in national parks, ostensibly because they make annoying noise—a restriction nobody ever thought to impose before, when most model aircraft were gas-powered and far noisier, though not called drones. Amazon can no longer do research and development on autonomous package delivery without a licensed pilot controlling the vehicle, thus abrogating the principal benefit of autonomy, and prompting Amazon to step across the border into Canada to legally test vehicles that are actually representative of what they want to develop. Naturally, we can’t know this, but I believe that neither restriction would have materialized had someone not described both craft as drones.

To its credit, the Federal Aviation Administration, which creates these restrictions, correctly applies them to “unmanned aircraft,” regardless of the aircraft type or whether they are remote-controlled or autonomous. If the media will bother to do the same, much terminology-driven confusion can be avoided.

A small, remote-controlled quadcopter sold by Radio Shack under the name "Surveyor Drone."

A small, remote-controlled quadcopter sold by Radio Shack under the name “Surveyor Drone.”

It’s a good time for that. The advent of quadcopters (I use the term loosely to include hexacopters and other multiple-rotor copters) has exploded the number of unmanned aircraft in the lowest 500 feet of the sky, driven by the wide availability of low-cost solid state accelerometers developed for cell phones, and by software making it easy for a microcomputer to keep the craft stable for inexperienced recreational pilots. Many quadcopters can now function as drones, flying pre-programmed paths, or even following someone around with a camera by tracking GPS positions over a local wireless network. Considering all this new traffic, it is absolutely a good time for some relevant and meaningful regulation. It is my hope that understanding what a drone is and what it is not, and what a recreational quadcopter is and is not, will inform public reaction and the legislation it drives.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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3 Responses to When a Drone is Not a Drone

  1. One-Wing Pony says:

    Your contention that the public and resultant regulatory backlash against quads is a result of their being labeled with the bad word “drones” is, as you acknowledge, entirely conjectural. Here’s a simpler explanation: R/C airframes are more common now, which both increases public awareness of them and makes potential problems both more prevalent and more…well, problematic.

    Here’s an anecdote: I was a hobbyist RC glider “pilot”. Until a few years ago, here’s how many times I saw an R/C craft that wasn’t piloted by myself: zero (I’m not counting trips to hobby shops or arranged outings with other hobbyists). Plus it was an expensive hobby, required a lot of room, and only hardcore RC guys ever put cameras on board. Now I have friends who bought $40 quads for their 8-year-old kids, and why not? If they break it was only the cost of popcorn and a movie for two! And they’re far more advanced and easier to fly than my planes ever were, and can even be easily flown indoors. The $40 ones don’t come with cameras, but cheap wireless cameras are easy to come by.

    So what’s going to lead to a public backlash: relatively rare R/C planes that you never run across, flown by a small core of dedicated hobbyists who fly mostly in remote open locations (because who wants to crash their $600-$2400 plane?), which probably don’t carry a camera or a payload; or ubiquitous tiny things piloted by any impulse buyer with a credit card who can get good enough to fly his camera drone up to your bedroom window in about an hour? Add on top of that (hypothetical) Amazon heavy drones carrying packages above your car, your house, and your head and all the other possibilities that cheap, easy-to-fly commercial drones open up and you can see why there were calls for regulation.

    You may disagree with a lot of the public backlash, and I do as well. But to basically just dismiss people with these concerns as sheeple spooked by a scary word is needlessly smug and entirely unfounded.

  2. Mudguts says:

    Brian and Birds!!

    I get a tad worried.. Its a bit of a hobby around here in Sydney flying inbetween and around apartment blocks and near where we live down south, you see the of RC bod flying hobby craft near Albion Park air field.

    I know some regulation has been introduced for Oz. (I do go warm and fuzzy inside when folk say standards and regulation!!!!)

    Sight of the week last week was that rebuilt Constellation flying around and coming in (and landing) at Albion Park

  3. The word “Drone”originated from the old De Havilland aircraft which were pressed into service between WW1 and WW2 as aerial targets for fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns. They were launched in remote sites and flew in a straight line until they ran out of a measured amount of fuel and crashed if they had They cannot be compared with modern unmanned aircraft which are extremely sophisticated using artificial intelligence and multiple fail-safe systems. The latter are rigorously designed and tested before being given a certificate of airworthiness.
    The hysterical press wanted to give them a short and threatening name so came up with “Drone”. If, understandably, the press wanted a less cumbersome name than “Unmanned Aircraft” I would suggest “Aerobot”.
    I have no objection to the toys, now being sold in large numbers, being called “Drones”as they do pose a safety threat. They are “designed” down to a price, do not have airworthiness certification, can be unreliable and fail at any time, with potentially catastrophic results in collision with passenger-carrying aircraft or people on the ground.
    Real, certificated, Unmanned Aircraft have a large place to play in humanitarian and life-saving operations and I look forward to their being used more in those applications.

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