Drones Drones & Vehicles Robotics
Should We Stop Using the Word “Drone”?

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Drone. It’s a word that creates quite a bit of heated controversy of late. The debate often comes from radio control hobbyists — it seems like the entire world has gotten used to using a term that still makes hobbyists cringe.

The radio control hobby existed for quite sometime before multirotors became extremely popular. Particularly in 2013 and 2014, the consumer-grade drone industry has completely exploded and this has caused some disruption in various pre-existing niches. Experienced and knowledgeable people tend to refer to these craft as multirotors, tricopters, quadcopters, hexacopters etc. Often times these are the people who are wary of the millions of flyers who received a small multirotor as a gift or a toy in the past couple of years and are using it without much guidance or instruction.

The word “drone” admittedly has an overall negative connotation. The word is what most people (until the last couple of years) would call large, autonomous military aerial systems designed for combat or surveillance. You can imagine how you would cringe if a hobby you had called your own for a very long time was suddenly and constantly bombarded by a term that had some seriously violent and invasive implications.

Technically, the word “drone” could apply to quite a few consumer-grade quadcopters. You wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect in calling them drones, nor is there anything wrong with calling them that. It is not a bad word. It is just a word.

However, like any niche or industry, there are far more accurate terms to refer to them by: Multirotor, quadcopter, FPV wing, aerial photography platform, miniquad, micro quad etc.. Using those terms will make you appear more informed, experienced and well researched.

Keeping that in mind, two different groups of people need to shoulder some responsibility to bridge the gap on this issue:

Group #1: The people that refer to small consumer grade quadcopters as drones. This group of people could be active members of the media who find that the “D” word generates more clicks and views. Or alternatively (and more often the case) these are often people who have heard this term in the news in association with small quadcopters and naturally assumed this is the most appropriate name.

I would urge Group #1 to educate themselves on more accurate and specific names, terms that are more specific, more descriptive and more accurate depending on the example.

Group #2: Like me, this group may squirm a little when they hear or say the word “drone” to describe a hobby that has given them a lot in terms of a DIY challenge, an engineering feat or a casual activity with friends.

I encourage this group to be patient and not wage a war that probably will not be won. The best path to changing the predominate terminology is not by argument but education. The more educated the average person becomes about our increasingly mainstream hobby, the less impact hearing the word drone will have.

I also encourage Group #2 to do their best to reclaim the word! Although there are negative implications to using the word drone. It’s not too late to actually begin to change the overall perception of what this word means. I think this is something that has already begun to happen.

The word “drone” has a wide definition that a lot of flying craft now fall into. However with little more understanding from all sides on the issue, I think we can begin to not only use more accurate terms to talk about this niche but also begin to repurpose the less accurate terms for better use.

26 thoughts on “Should We Stop Using the Word “Drone”?

  1. I think the term “Drone” needs to be more specific…
    Right now, anybody with a model airplane or helicopter technically operates a “Drone”. Quadcopters didn’t make drones, they just made them easier to fly.

    Personally, I feel that “Drone” shouldn’t apply to non-autonomous flying machines. If you are directly controlling your quadcopter, it’s not a drone. If your model airplane is flying itself based on the instructions you provided, it’s a drone.

    1. Then the military doesn’t use drones very often either (yet) and there is no such thing as a “drone strike”. Not disagreeing, just pointing it out.

    2. As well as the RC’s that we use that can have pre-planned flights programmed in are again, Drones by your definition. It doesn’t do much for clearing up the confusion.

  2. Drone does not bother me much. It has been used for decades for unmanned aircraft. Now the way “robot” is abused bugs the crap out of me.

  3. In the same way that “rocket” means “rocket”, and “missile” means “rocket with a warhead”, I think we should re-purpose “drone” to only mean “weaponized UAV”. That keeps everything crystal clear. A “drone” is a weapon. A plain old UAV is not.

    1. There is a problem with that, a UAV and a UCAV are both used for military purposes. UAV for surveillance, UCAV for combat. People, at least when “drone” is mentioned, referring to the hobby are more scared of people peeking in their windows, which, as you and I know would be impossible with the sound they make.

      TL;DR UAV is not the solution either. I think we should stick to quadcopters, tricopters, or hell, go back to what they are and call them RC toys…

      1. Notice that I never offered “UAV” as a solution. I only offered a stricter definition of “drone”.

        1. Touche, I just feel it needs to be addressed carefully, and as the article says with an educated mind. As I said most people have this negative connotation, thanks to the media and other stupid pilots. Just pointing out the biggest fear I’ve noticed is people think we’re watching them when we’re actually watching the scenery, or just watching where we’re going.

    2. So when a MQ-9 reaper is armed it’s a drone, and when it’s not armed it’s a UAV? A military Scaneagle , and RQ-11 Raven are both unarmed military Drones. For that matter a civilian SKYWALKER and a military RQ-11 Raven are essentially the exact same plane. They are also both capable of autonomous flight. No way I’m calling one a drone and the other some long name that takes 15 syllables to say.

  4. In the world of UAV’s, “Drone” is merely a mode of flight. It means pre-programmed, autonomous operation. What most of us actually do, most of the time could not be further removed from that description. We even install live transmission equipment so we can be in personal control of the craft at all times. Reporters on the other hand are usually working in drone mode. “Simplest definition to get maximum attention” But of course leaving enough column inches/VT for advertisements.

  5. “Drones” are just another annoying way the “maker movement” tries to make itself important.
    Radio control is a long existing hobby. It seems to have come out of amateur radio, showing the value of a relatively unrestricted radio service. If there wasn’t a place where one could play with radio, there’d have been no infrastructure to try radio controlled modelling.
    But it was, so a couple of hams built a model airplane, and radio control equipment. For some time if you were interested in R/C, you had to get a license. But eventually that showed a need, so now there are frequencies set aside for such things, no ham license needed.
    And originally, it was about building. The kits and preassembled, both the vehicles and the radio equipment, came later.
    If you were interested in such things, you’d go to the hobby shop, neat places that have mostly faded, but which were once common. Kind of like extended toy stores,
    they carried items for a whole bunch of hobbies.
    To call these things “drones” is to separate them from the long history of R/C. It’s to act, like so many things before, as if the “maker movement” is something new, separate from all that came before. But it couldn’t exist without what came before, since the actual contents is not new.
    Only if there is a significant change is there a need for a new name. “Drones” may be cool, and “makers” like that sense of identity, but in the end these new things are just radio controlled models.
    Michael

  6. I think the word Drone makes people think in flying robots. For me, Drone resembles more an autonomous vehicle that can make decisions and don’t need to be remotely controlled, not necessarily a flying one. All that frightens people because they probably thinks in movies like Terminator or stories from Asimov. The reality is far from that since we A.I. is not that advanced and all military and or hobby vehicles need some human control or programing. Because of this common imaginary, I think the term is bad and tends to create wrong perceptions for those that are not in the hobby.

  7. It’s the same with “assault rifle”. You can tell unknowledgeable people a semiautomatic rifle is not a true assault rifle, but in their mind, it’s the same.

    1. Going off your last post as well, I’ll explain to uneducated people that there is no such thing as an assault rifle, AR stands for Armalite rifle. Assault rifle/Assault weapon is a term made up by the media to scare people. Just as Drone is as well, they are UAV or UCAV in the military.

      I will agree with you in that, it’s an uphill almost impossible battle to tell other people they are wrong, which we will probably see with my reply here.

      Though I do disagree that all quads take less skill, maybe a quad with GPS on it takes less skill but a home brew quad with only a FC on it takes probably just as much skill, watched my nephew crash mine 6 times the other day and simply couldn’t bring it back to him.

      1. There are true assault rifles, they just aren’t semiautomatic, they are full or select fire.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assault_rifle

        My main point was there is a generic term and until a better one is coined “drone” will be used for anything from a Global Hawk to an indoor quad copter.

      2. Well, there I go generalizing. 8-)

        I’ve never flown one, but the new DJI Phantom quadcopters look to be more fly-by-wire with electronics doing all of the balancing. One feature is to shut off the controller and let it “find home” for a landing.
        Smaller quad copters that require pilot remote input to stay upright could be as hard or harder than a RC helicopter.

  8. Drone – Military aircraft
    Drone – That thing the kid next door flies that annoys the hell out of me.
    Drone – That Q copter some jerk buzzed me while at the beach.

    Find a name shorter than “recreational quad helicopter” or live with Drone.

    Flying RC helicopters takes skill. Flying a quadcopter takes less skill and the numbers are exploding. Either the quadcopter user base needs to self police or watch drone become a dirty word followed by draconian as in new laws.

  9. A Chevy pickup is a “truck”, a ford pickup is a “truck”, a dump truck is a “truck”, a freightliner big rig is a “truck”, a Ford ranger is a “truck”, a m998 HMMWV is a truck, an MRAP is a truck. All different, yet all trucks. I understand the thought process behind wantting to disassociate consumer quadcopters, hexacopters, and octocopterss from their military counterparts, however weaponizing or not weaponizing something doesn’t change what it is. Similarly, whether it is intended for military use or not doesn’t change what it is. Unmanned vehicles that are capable of behing controlled autonomously will always be called drones by me. Doesn’t matter if it’s a DJI phantom, a 3DRobotics IRIS, or a MQ9-Reaper. They are all drones. To add to that, the manufacturers refer to them as drones as well…(becausethats what they are)

  10. I think you’re out of luck. Despite all the kerfuffle around the term the word ‘hacker’ in the public’s mind is unalterably associated with people that do dark nefarious deeds and steal things from computer systems. No amount of talking by people that wanted to educate the public away from it has stuck — does anyone use the term ‘cracker’ any more? I think it went the way of ‘surfing the web’ —it took introducing a whole new term ‘maker’ to make ‘hackers’ acceptable. I very much doubt you can reclaim drone, you might just have to come up with a new term entirely, and unless there’s a interesting hook for the public to hang the term on, it won’t stick either. Words mean what most of the people want them to mean. That’s one of the reasons why specialists sometimes use words that don’t quite mean the same thing inside the specialism than they do outside it to the general public — engineers, physicists, and medics are especially guilty of this — because inside the specialism you have to be precise. Outside? It really doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter all that much.

      1. I was insulted and removed from the group after trying to explain how intellectual property worked…

  11. Unfortunately, language operates by a strange set of laws. Whatever the RC community might feel (and I count myself a part of that community), the fact is that the word “drone” is “sticky”. It is short, it has punch, has a certain ring to it, and is easy to use in headlines and articles. I’d argue that the technical definition is that a drone is a vehicle capable of moving autonomously. I can say that a Cessna with autopilot is a drone, but that is just nit-picking. In the end, usage changes language and I think we have passed the tipping point for this word. I don’t think we can remove it from application to RC, nor do I really think we should. The 3D Robotics Iris (and many other vehicles) can fly fully autonomously. My Nano QX cannot. They are both RC vehicles, both toys, both quadcopters. I’d like to see people become educated to the point where they recognize the difference and apply the word correctly, but I just don’t see it happening. The general public just doesn’t care enough about the technology behind the toys to be curious and learn. Manufacturers have given in, privacy fear-mongers have latched on, and the media aids and abets. We are in for a tumultuous few years while we all argue the details of sharing airspace safely, preserving privacy, enabling innovation, bolstering an industry, etc. Only when the dust has settled on those issues will we really understand what “drone” will mean.

  12. ” It is just a word.” TRUE, but the “word” is used by our lovely feds who think its THEIR “word” and they dont like anyone else like us slaves to use it! I have been rallying against those that used the word from the onset as I knew it would bring to much heat to our hobby & cause us all misery in the end!

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Austin Furey

Austin Furey is the marketing manager for FliteTest.com, a community dedicated to entertaining, educating, and elevating the world of flight. Find him on twitter as @austinfurey.

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