The drone naming debate (solved)

Drone journalism logs

Hobby drone, news drone, police drone, wheee-ooo-wheee-ooo. Naming the device doesn’t get more complicated than that.

Forget the UAV, RPAS, UAS, RPV, RPA and UA. If it flies, buzzes and isn’t operated by an on-board human being, it’s a drone.

Look! It's a drone, mama - Dutch News Design

The name drone, according to the experts, was wrong. It was associated with the military, and neither the model flyer nor the commercial drone industry wanted to have anything to do with that. But what should we call it then? Dozens of names came flying through the air, mostly abbreviations, none of which was satisfying. So the drone kept returning.

It all started in November 1946, one year after the nuclear bombing on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Popular Science described a remotely controlled vehicle like this:

Someday (…) Long-range drones armed with atomic bombs could be flown by accompanying mother ships to their targets and in for perfect hits.1

Since long drones have served mainly military purposes. Naturally the drone felt military first, just like we consider a tank to be in a military context first (Google ‘tank’, you won’t see any gas tanks).


The search for alternative names

For hobbyists, to avoid having to explain you weren’t going to bomb anyone with your model aircraft, an alternative name would come in handy. Of course, every hobby club came up with its own defendable name. Didn’t help.

‘Unmanned Vehicle System, you say? What’s that.’

‘(Long description, by expert)’

‘Oh, you mean a drone.’

(Long sigh, by expert)

For scientists, the term drone lacked the desirable amount of descriptive exactness. So they also tried to define the vehicle (hoping to get their definition cited by peers). This is what they came up with, among others:

  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV),
  • Uninhabited Aircrafts, Drone Aircrafts,
  • Unmanned Aircrafts (UA),
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS),
  • Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV),
  • Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA),
  • Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS)
  • Unmanned Aerial Systems (also UAS).

Drone journalism experts didn’t help either. The Professional Society of Drone Journalists prefers the small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) and in the BBC newsroom the Small Remote Controlled Multi Rotor Helicopter apparently was quite popular for a while, if we have to believe Thomas Hannen in this podcast interview with Sarah Marshall.

The solution

So what to do? Well, actually, there’s nothing to it. The drone has settled in. The debate is over. The solution to the ‘military link’ was so simple, nobody thought of it in the first place: Just like with cars, we’ll explain the user application with a prefix. So: a military drone, a hobby drone, a media drone, a fire drone: whee-ooo-whee-ooo.

And etymologically we’re fine, we’re fine. The drone is rooted in the German languages and probably derives from the buzzing sound of the word. In many languages related words like Dran, Darn and Dar have been used to define large buzzing insects, like bees and drones. Considering that, the micro drone is probably the closest we’ll get to the original meaning.

Delfly - TU Delft

Micro drone: the Delfly by the TU Delft – An insect-like airplane that deserves the name drone.

The UFO is banned from planet earth

The rise of the drone causes one other flying abbreviation to extinguish. The UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) has survived since the 50s. But since every flying object in our atmosphere is now identifiable as a drone – even if it isn’t one – the UFO is banned from our planet.

Are mysterious UFOs still out there, or is it just another boring drone flying near comet Rosetta?
  1. Popular Science. 1946. Grumman hatches a Mallard. November 1946. 120-124. Note that the first usage is maybe older. In one theory the name derives from a 1935 pilotless aircraft named DH.82B Queen Bee.

Stijn Postema

Stijn Postema is a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter from the Netherlands. He has a background in journalism, arts and design.

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