Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why the word "drone" is scaring neighbors, creating bad legislation, and blocking an economic boom.

Sensationalist coverage and fabricated illustrations have cemented the word "drone" as a weapon in the public psyche. But it may not be too late to change public opinion about the technology behind the word.

A few years ago, a colleague and her husband, an ex-helicopter pilot, realized a tectonic shift was disrupting industries in which they had devoted entire careers.

This disruption had a passing resemblance to what happened to other American industries. The hard work once done by skilled, human hands was now being automated by the calculating actuators of a machine.

Automation had long since dominated the appliance, automotive, and electronics industries. But this was a brand new territory – aviation.

The reduced price and size, and the increased reliability and capability of processors, sensors and batteries meant unmanned aviation had been unleashed. A nouveau DIY revolution meant that basements and garages were once again incubating nascent technology, just as they did in the 1970s when the personal computer was being developed.

The silver lining is that the cost of search and rescue, disaster relief, monitoring wildlife, guarding endangered animals from being poached, and even medication delivery to underserved populations all could be slashed.

Like many other small startups in the unmanned aviation industry, my friend and her husband saw an opportunity. And despite criticism of slow progress on regulations, the Federal Aviation Administration also sees it. The FAA estimates that the market for commercial unmanned aerial systems will eventually reach $90 billion.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicles and Systems International (AUVSI) believes there will be an economic impact of $13.6 billion within 3 years that unmanned aircraft are integrated into the national airspace.

Where to start? What better way to get acquainted to the industry than attend one of the premier industry conference in the nation, hosted by AUVSI?

She learned about new applications for unmanned aircraft. She listened to a UAV operator who used his homemade robotic aircraft to assess flood damage in Thailand. The information gathered from the aerial vehicle allowed the government to make decisions that mitigated flooding in the country’s capital.

This was great. But when it came to talk shop, things became awkward when she used a five-letter word that began with the letter “d.”

“The conversation would just stop,” she said. “Just completely stop dead.”

Industry regulars avoid the term, and there’s good reason for it. Commercial media has used the word “drone” to describe the aerial vehicles that rain Hellfire missiles on insurgents and innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.

Those news reports don’t exactly lend themselves to a positive first impression of unmanned technology. Nevertheless, this is the way many Americans have learned about this innovation.

A Predator for your very own

To make matters worse, the commercial media capitalizes on the sensationalism of the word to get page hits for benign domestic gadgets.

“For $300 — so we’re not talking peanuts, but we’re not talking $20,000,000 either — you can have your very own spybot! They’ve been around for more than a year now,” wrote the American radio journalist Robert Krulwitch. “Why should the Air Force, the CIA, the police and the border patrol have these things and not the rest of us?”

He’s actually reviewing a consumer product called the AR.Drone, which is a remote-controlled, quad-rotor vehicle that you can control with a Wi-Fi enabled tablet or smart phone. The toy transmits video from an integrated 720p camera to the controlling device, allowing the pilot to see the toy’s “point of view,” or POV.

Gizmodo went farther, publishing a review with the link-baiting title “Your own private predator.”

“Holy shit. I’ve got my own flying drone,” wrote Gizmodo’s Joel Johnson. “I’m basically the CIA and a spaceman all in one civilian package. I’m going to fly a drone, I’m going to get arrested, and I’m going to be a hero.”

Under a section called “Who’s it for,” Johnson opined: “Aviation dabblers who want to look over their neighbors’ fences.”

Piloting the AR.Drone in front of STEM educators associated with the EnLiST National Science Foundation Grant. I flew the toy helicopter through a door to signal the beginning of the annual dinner.
In his breathless review, he failed to mention the AR.Drone’s major limitations. The camera quality is on par with cell phones from a half-decade ago, and it is incapable of pan, tilt, or zoom. The range of the device is about 95 feet from the operator. On stock batteries, it can fly for only about 8 minutes. It is incapable of lifting much of anything.

And if it’s raining, or there’s a mild breeze? Forget it.

The details about these limitations are typically buried deep into the product reviews. But an MQ-9 Reaper, it is not. My brother in-law, an ex-Air Force reservist who repaired electric systems on Reapers, chuckled at my wing of “drones.”

Perhaps one of the greatest transgressions comes from the February 11 issue of Time magazine. The cover features a fully-armed Predator drone, buzzing what is ostensibly a family home somewhere in suburban America.

Time betrayed its readers for a number of reasons. For one, Predators operate at a much higher altitude when on a strike mission. Secondly, the scenario depicted was no more or less likely than a fully-armed F-16 buzzing an American home (which, by the way, can carry up to 17,000 pounds of munitions, instead of the Predator’s 200 pounds).

But Time’s biggest folly was that the cover illustration was a complete fabrication. In its pursuit for profit, it introduced to many technically illiterate people a potentially life-saving technology as a killing machine.

To some extent, it’s always been like this. As I wrote for the Canadian International Council (, Nikola Tesla was dogged by this perception when the first drone was on display in Madison Square Garden.

“[Tesla’s] audience, baffled and scared by the demonstration, likely had little or no previous exposure to radio technology. It would be nearly a decade until the first public radio broadcast, a live transmission from the Metropolitan Opera House,” I wrote.

“A New York Times reporter asked the question that would dog the technology from that day on: What of the military applications for the tiny electric boat? ‘You do not see there a wireless torpedo,’ Tesla replied, offended by the reporter’s suggestion. ‘You see there the first of a race of robots, mechanical men who will do the laborious work of the human race.’”

What's a drone, really?

To get to the bottom of this, it’s important not just to understand why the word “drone” is a pejorative, but what it actually means in the first place.

A logical first place is a dictionary, which usually requires that a drone A) is a plane or boat that is unmanned, and B) is controlled remotely. There’s nothing about autonomy or semi-autonomy. And here, as in Tesla’s device, there is not a single word about military application.

The etymology of the word dates back to the interwar period, according to Laurence Newcome’s “Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.”

Britain’s Royal Air Force needed an aerial target to hone the dogfighting skills of its aviators. Because of the perilousness of being shot at, the aerial target needed to be unmanned.

The RAF began converting a DeHaviland biplane, called the Queen Bee, into an unmanned, remote-controlled aerial target. It only was a short jump in the insect world to come up with “drone,” as in a bee whose only job is to mate with the queen and create more little bees.

Newcome also wrote that an American armed services officer in 1936 inexplicably began calling these unmanned aerial targets “drones” as well.

A drone inside of the aviation industry means something completely different than what the media describes. Gary Mortimer, founder of the unmanned systems news website, remembers the word from his days in the RAF.

“During my time in the RAF, drones were things you shot at,” Mortimer said.

I emailed Melanie Hinton, AUVSI Communications Manager, about the word and asked her to clarify if and how the industry uses it. Apparently the industry does, in fact, use the word “drone,” but it’s an entirely different context than the media portrays.

“Our pubs team here actually do use the word drone to mean target drone,” Hinton replied.

“The reasons we say UAS [Unmanned Aerial System] are 1) they are smarter than those target drones of yore and 2) by just acknowledging the vehicle itself, you’re completely leaving out at lot of the comms and other smarts that aren’t housed on board, which is why it’s called an unmanned aerial system, emphasis on the system,” she added.

The FAA has adopted the term UAS as well. According to the federal agency’s Aeronautical Information Manual, or AIM, the dimensions and flight characteristics of UAS can vary greatly:

“Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), formerly referred to as ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ (UAVs) or ‘drones,’ are having an increasing operational presence in the NAS [National Airspace System]. Once the exclusive domain of the military, UAS are now being operated by various entities,” reads the federal agency’s AIM, or Aeronautical Information Manual.

The FAA recognizes many varieties of unmanned aircraft. UAS aren’t defined by size, weight, configuration, or power source, according to the manual. They are, however, defined by having a ground-based crew.

“Although these aircraft are ‘unmanned,’ UAS are flown by a remotely located pilot and crew. Physical and performance characteristics of unmanned aircraft (UA) vary greatly and unlike model aircraft that typically operate lower than 400 feet AGL, UA may be found operating at virtually any altitude and any speed,” the AIM continues.

“Sizes of UA can be as small as several pounds to as large as a commercial transport aircraft. UAS come in various categories including airplane, rotorcraft, powered-lift (tilt-rotor), and lighter-than-air. Propulsion systems of UAS include a broad range of alternatives from piston powered and turbojet engines to battery and solar-powered electric motors.”

Drone is not an acronym. It doesn’t require the technical background necessary to discern a “vehicle” from a “system.” And perhaps most important for click-baiting commercial media, it’s a concise, sinister-sounding word.

Unfortunately for the people trying to use this technology for good, this catch-all word doesn’t provide enough context to differentiate between MQ-1 Predators, and the kinds of aerial robots that could deliver vital medicine, boost crop yields, assist disaster recovery, protect endangered animals and save lost children.

"Aren't there already laws to prevent that?"

This narrow definition has consequences. Fueled by an erroneous report that the EPA had used a drone to monitor for pollution (it was an airplane, actually, which the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled constitutional), small-government conservatives and anti-police state liberals joined forces in a rare instance of bipartisan agreement to express fear that military hardware will be used to spy on American citizens. At least 42 states have drafted bills that would severely limit, or outlaw outright, the use of unmanned systems

Most of these states are pursuing legislation that would restrict law enforcement from using unmanned aircraft only if a search warrant is granted. Others are looking to ban aerial photography completely, or require that UAS operators obtain the consent of landowners before filming. These bills typically make use the word “drone,” and provide a definition that includes most UAS.

In response to the recent wave of news and legislation, hobbyists and other small businesses with UAS have appealed to the internet and to mainstream media to save the technology.

A duo of UAS operators called the Roswell Flight Test Crew put together a YouTube video in protest of Oregon’s SB71, which would have outlawed any remote-controlled aircraft equipped with a camera.

“I don’t want anybody looking in my bedroom window,” said Roswell Flight Test member Patrick Sherman in the video. “But aren’t there already laws to prevent that?”

“This bill has been written out of the profound ignorance of the actual facts and issue that surround this emergent technology,” he continued. “But the solution for ignorance isn’t anger or scorn. It’s education and knowledge.”

Sherman and his Roswell colleague Brian Zvaigzne also appeared at a hearing for SB71 and provided a written testimony that warned of a double-standard for manned and unmanned aircraft.

“This appears to be nothing more than a reflexive response to the hypothesis that ‘drones are scary.’” Sherman and Zvaigzne wrote. “UAS, to give them their proper designation, are the same as any other instrument yet devised by humans.”

“They can be used for either good or evil, but to demonize the technology itself will only serve to damage Oregon’s standing in the ongoing nationwide competition to determine where this industry of the future will make its home.”

In Australia, a country that established its unmanned aircraft regulations in 1998 with CASR Part 101, a 40-year veteran of the remote controlled aircraft hobby appealed to fellow hobbyists to stop calling their equipment “drones.”

“Another thing we should do is whenever we are talking with the media, we do not call these things drones,” said Bruce Simpson of “Drones has a very negative connotation.”

“Whenever you say drones to somebody who has been watching the news, they think of the predator firing missiles at hapless Iraqis and Afghanis in the desert and killing them. That’s giving drones a bit of a bad rap.”

The radio controlled aircraft that Simpson and other hobbyists use are nearly identical to the aircraft used by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fox. The biggest difference is that professionals generally use larger motors and batteries, more elaborate camera gimbals, and higher-end cameras and lenses.

At least one community has thrived on not just the word “drone,” but also on iconography that echoes the “shock and awe” of militarized unmanned aircraft.

 "... we’ve made it clear that’s not what we’re about.”

The online community of recently celebrated its 40,000th member. It regularly makes 62,000 page hits daily, and occasionally exceeds 2 million page hits in a month.

Despite those impressive numbers, not all members agree with the community’s name, or how other members use “drone.” Some view the word as an inaccurate distortion, while others go so far as to say it’s a click-baiting tactic to move a product.

These individuals believe use of the word could undermine the community, the hobby, and could scare others away from a beneficial technology.

“There are those in this community who advocate embracing the ‘drone’ moniker and to simply go with the media tide,” one member commented. “By and large, these are people who are heavily invested in the word ‘drone’ for fairly self-serving reasons.”

“I think this is a big mistake, and the bigger industry guys do as well.”

Members have variously proposed “aerial robots,” “aerobots,” “RC aircraft,” “robotic aircraft,” in addition to the industry-approved acronyms UAS and UAV, as reasonable substitutes for “drone.”

“Perhaps the worst thing about this group is what has turned out to be an unfortunate choice of names,” another DIYDrones member wrote.

Chris Anderson, who founded the DIYDrones community, left his post as editor in chief of Wired magazine to run his startup, 3D Robotics, full-time. In their pursuit of the aerial robotics hobby, DIYDrones members have churned out a considerable amount of code and innumerable hours of development which benefitted Anderson’s line of open-source autopilots.

Anderson doesn’t seem likely to stop using the “drone” word. He’s said before that the defining characteristic of a drone is its autonomy. But he’s also aware about the potential hazards of associating his community’s robots with the unmanned aircraft that are bombing insurgents in foreign lands.

For a long time, the banner for contained an illustration of an unmanned aircraft system that bore a striking resemblance to the General Atomics Reaper. In 2010, it underwent a design change to appear more like Ikhana, a Reaper that was obtained by NASA, de-clawed, and turned into a test bed for unmanned technologies. The Ikhana was deployed to monitor a California wildfire in 2007.

Old DIY Drones banner, with a red slash-through.
New DIY Drones banner, sans the Predator look-alike.

“Well, until there is a better known UAV, we’re going to stick with this one,” Anderson wrote on DIYDrones at the time. “As long as most drones are military, people will make that correlation, but we’ve made it clear that’s not what we’re about.”

In February, Anderson launched a contest to re-design the header. One of the design criteria was that “it should look cool and ‘drone-like’ but not look military or threatening.”

The website now sports a banner with multirotor, fixed-wing, and rover vehicles. None of them bear a passing resemblance to military equipment.

Changing the word from “drone” to “UAS” may not fundamentally narrow the knowledge gap between the industry and the public. After all, even if the media is using the technically accurate term UAS to describe the aircraft that are bombing the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s still a UAS doing the bombing.

But at least using a technically accurate term opens the door to a more intelligent conversation about the technology, and one that isn’t burdened by years of association with death and destruction. It’s a chance to revise an overly-specific and incorrect definition.

In other words: these aren’t drones. They’re unmanned aircraft.

Marc Corcoran, a foreign correspondent for ABC who is studying UA applications for journalism, reported AUVSI’s chairman might be giving up on the word “drone”:

Speaking at the Avalon International Air Show, AUVSI's chairman, Australian Peter Bale, said: “I’m going to roll over on this one, and call them drones from now on. There are just some fights you are not going to win.”

I contacted Hinton for clarification.

“AUVSI will continue to call them UAS, unmanned aircraft systems,” she replied.

Even if AUVSI doesn’t adopt the nomenclature, Bale is an important voice who represents the “other side” of the drone debate within the industry. Namely, that drone is here to stay, and it’s more productive to try to change the perception than to adopt a technical acronym.

There are signs that public opinion is shifting. New Hampshire, a state that attempted to ban all aerial and satellite photography, tabled its drone bill. Oregon changed its drone bill to regulate only police use of unmanned aircraft.

But as of September 1 in Texas, the state where a hobby drone uncovered illegal polluting by a meat packing plant, it will be illegal to take aerial photos of real property without the consent of the owner.

Interestingly, it will be legal to take aerial photos at “the scene of a spill, or suspected spill.”

It’s up to lawyers and courts to interpret what any of that means. Which means that FAA regulations won’t be the end-all-be-all of the unmanned universe.

I make no claim of being a lawyer, but public perception won’t be the last hurdle that small operators of unmanned aircraft have to clear.