When a Drone is Not a Drone
May 7, 2015
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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