Language Matters - The Argument for "Aerobot"


This past week brought to light two different instances where "drone paranoia" reared its ugly head in the United States. In one case, a Connecticut quadcopter pilot was assaulted, in another a Michigan man was dubiously barred from flying his quad in a park. Both incidents were sparked by passersby who felt they were being "spied on" by the flying devices while in public.

There has long been a debate in the unmanned systems community as to whether the word "drone" should be resisted or embraced. On one side are those who argue that the term is unfit for various reasons, chief among them being its decidedly negative connotations. On the other, those who believe that the term is so ingrained in popular culture that it isn't worth resisting.

At BirdsEyeView Aerobotics, we're not fans of the word "drone" and we're not afraid to pick battles where we're a decided underdog. A quick survey of media reports from the past five years reveals that this is widely identified as a drone:

And unsurprisingly this is the first image that pops up in a Google image search for the term.

The word "drone" is so tied to images of hellfire missiles, actual real world spying by military and intelligence agencies, and general death and destruction, that its use when describing consumer grade technology is now resulting in physical injury and unjust accusations of criminality. We believe that when a word becomes so clearly negative that the result is an assault on a person, it's way past time to change the word.

Previous attempts at settling on an alternate term have failed miserably for two reasons. One, the alternate terms just didn't fit the bill (more on that below). And two, everyday people weren't really being affected by the word "drone." The second point is changing rapidly, as the Connecticut and Michigan events illustrate. But let's focus on the first.

A substitute for the word "drone" needs to accomplish three things:

    1. It has to be easy to say.
    "Drone" definitely has that going for it, so we have to at least give it a run for its money.
    2. It has to be accurate.
    This is where "drone" has a big weakness, as for most it conjures bees and mindless drudgery. Clearly neither of these images really do justice to current high-tech, autopilot-controlled consumer multicopters and airplanes.
    3. It has to be universal.
    "Drone" is used as an identifier for everything from a tiny quadcopter to a solar-powered glider and beyond, so the new term has to be equally broad.

      Now let's compare some of the previous suggestions against our three criteria:

        "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle" (to include "Remotely Piloted Vehicle" and "Unmanned Aircraft System") ...
        This was what some big players in the industry were going for. AUVSI, the military-industrial advocacy group, tried hard for a while to get one or more of these terms (and their associated abbreviations: UAV, UAS, RPV, UA) widely adopted. To their credit, they appear to at least have succeeded in getting their friends at the FAA onboard. While these terms may be accurate and mostly-universal (RPV being the holdout), they are painfully hard to say and their abbreviations are simply not normal-conversation-friendly.
        "Quadcopter" (to include "Multicopter," "Hexacopter," "Octocopter," etc, etc) ...
        Relatively recently, perhaps as a backlash to the growing sense that the evolution of the word "drone" was not going well, we've seen the rise of "that's not a drone, it's a quadcopter!" in internet forums and chat rooms. While these terms are accurate, they aren't terribly easy to say and certainly aren't universal. The fixed wing side of the industry is totally ignored and left to generate their own overly-specific terms. Conversations the world over would be destined to constant corrections when people inevitably misidentify a hexacopter as a quadcopter, etc. And look no further than our own FireFLY6 for an aircraft that's impossible to fit into a copter-centric set of terms.
        "Flying Robot" (to include "Aerial Robot") ...
        These terms are starting to be used more often, and they're great, but why use four or five syllables when you can use three?

          Aerobot ... easy to say, accurate, universal. A play on a word ("robot") that sparks imagination and not cynicism. We submit that "aerobot" is the perfect word. Let the military have "drones" and let the media continue to drive debate around deadly and dangerous misuse of the technology by state agencies.

          Drones are weapons, Aerobots save puppies.

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