Romancing the drone…

Anyone with even a passing interest in the military soon discovers the peculiar phenomenon of ‘military speak’, in which a spade can never quite be called a spade. 

Bombs and bullets are called ‘ordnance consumables’, a missile strike or bombing raid is known as a ‘kinetic event’, and despite its offensive purpose, the industry and its business must always be described as ‘defence’.  Military speak is essentially about maintaining a psychological distance between the day-to-day sanitized business of planning, preparing (and profiting) from armed conflicts and the awful brutal reality of warfare.   

The same coyness over language applies of course to drones.  Over the past few years I‘ve lost count of the number of times I been told not to call drones ‘drones’.  The current preferred term in the military is ‘Remotely Piloted Air System’ (RPAS) after they rejected ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ (UAV) as being ‘off message’ (“such a generic term can be unhelpful, particularly when working with an uninformed audience” said the MoD last year). 


Pretty in Pink?

The term ‘drone’, though widely used and understood by the public and media alike, is snubbed both by the military and those wanting to get a civil drone industry of the ground.  Not only is it seen as too dull a name for such a ‘sophisticated piece of kit’ but its association with death and destruction is of course problematic.

This week the Guardian revealed that the Unmanned Aerial Systems Association, a UK lobby group, is planning a public relations offensive to counter the negative image of drones.  This website (Drone Wars UK) was cited by the lobby group as part of the problem to be overcome.   They recommend  that drones deployed in the UK “be decorated with humanitarian-related advertisements, and be painted bright colours to distance them from those used in warzones”  As the guardian reports:

“John Moreland, the general secretary of UAVSA, said the industry was uncomfortable with the word “drones” and wanted to find new terminology. “If they’re brightly coloured, and people know why they’re there, it makes them a lot more comfortable,” he said.

The idea that the public could be persuaded to accept drones by painting them bright colours has rightly been mocked across the blogosphere.

A more serious strategy in the attempt to rebrand drones is for advocates to play up their potential to be used by green or human rights groups. Last week the New York Times carried a think piece arguing that drones should be used to monitor human rights abuses. Like many drones themselves however, the idea has come crashing down to earth after being comprehensively rubbished by human rights advocates (see the excellent post from Laurenist and also from Mark Kersten).  Even one noted supporter of drones, @drunkenpredator,  ridiculed the idea on twitter.

Drones do not have a negative image because of the work of Drones Wars UK, but because of the awful impact that they have in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, and because of the serious concern that remote warfare will mean more warfare. 

The public will not be reassured by any renaming or rebranding exercise.  What is needed is for the legitimate concerns about drones in warfare and their impact on civil liberties to be taken seriously.

16 thoughts on “Romancing the drone…

  • I really cannot think of anything more shameful than a drone.. and of course the kind of mind behind such development. recallng the gentlemanly honesty that existed when killing each other in earlier warfare.

    No question the human race as it is developing at present will collapse like eariier “civilisations”
    did…but this one will be world wide & absolutely DEVASTATING TAKING MUCH OF OUR WILD LIFE & NATURAL RESOURCES TOO

  • I’m afraid that there is so much misunderstanding in the press about Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

    Firstly, the Press insist on calling them “Drones”, They are not. Drones were used, and still are to a degree, for target practice. They were called drones because they were virtually uncontrolled and sent off onto a pre-planned course with no further communication with the operators.UAV are quite different with continuous communication with the operator available.

    A statement in the Sunday Times has a Mr Coles saying that they keep falling out of the sky as they have no certificates of airworthiness because they do not carry people. This is not generally true.

    For example, the British Sprite unmanned helicopter was designed and rigorously tested to both British Military and Civilian airworthiness requirements. In fact the design exceeded the Civil requirements for twin-engined passenger-carrying helicopters as demonstrated in hundreds of hours of rig-testing and flight trials in a wide range of climatic conditions.

    If you wish to know more, then read my book – “Unmanned Aircraft Systems – Their Design, Development and Deployment, published by Wiley, ISBN 978-0-470-05819-0 for the British issue.

    Prof. Eur.Ing. Reg Austin

  • Reg Austin,

    I’m baffled that you seem to be defending “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” using the argument that they are technically better than their critics claim. So, this must mean they are more effective at killing people, right? Why on earth would you think that was a good thing?

    • Please let me expand on my previous comments.
      Claire does me an injustice. In no way do I condone UAS killing people.
      My work since 1967 in designing and developing UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) has been predominately for humanitarian purposes. For example as an airborne eye for lifeboats to find small vessels in distress in storms at sea, finding and destroying buried land-mines, inspecting electricity power lines in a more environmentally friendly (and cheaper) way than using manned helicopters, monitoring crops for disease, etc., etc.
      I am not asking you to apologise, but merely to recognise that, as with all technologies, they can be used for good or for evil. That decision is purely in the hands of the human race.

  • It’s worth remembering that USAF Global Hawks and Reapers have conducted significant humanitarian support following natural disasters in Haiti, Japan and Pakistan.

    Likewise Customs and Border Protection Agency Reapers routinely support reactions to forest fires etc.

  • AA – Well that will teach me not to be so cynical! Thanks. Of course it doesn’t make up for all the death and destruction but its good to see them being used for a bit of good…..

  • Drones have gotten a bad rap from Afghanistan and Iraq, for good reason. But a drone for killing people is different from a drone for surveillance or mapping. As noted above they are just a tool, and have been used by many types for different reasons, including humanitarian mapping, forest fires, etc. Like most military technologies there are other positive uses for them outside of killing people.

    They’re just robots people.

    And just a heads up, two bloggers and a twitter post do not a robust thrashing make. I know many human rights professionals, as well as aid workers, considering this technology for more efficient needs mapping/planning, delivery and monitoring.

    • Michael,
      They’re far from robots.

      They actually require a far greater number of people to operate than a conventional aircraft. There are pros (eg more people able to watch the sensor feeds) and cons (cost of the more people and bandwidth required) to that. Effectively though, they’re just another golf club in the bag to be used alongside and remain interoperable with manned assets.


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