What’s in a Name?

Some years ago, before the Great Recession of 2008, aviation business was abuzz with the emerging VLJ (very light jet) industry.  It never really took off as predicted, so-to-speak.  The evolution of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles feels sort of the same as the buzz is not matching up with operational realities.  While civilian use of drones continues to evolve, including in fields as far removed from mainstream aviation as archaeology, questions abound about the legality of drone use in commercial sectors.

Not to be underestimated is the power of language in all of this.  “Will Drones Ever Shake Their Military Pedigree” is a good recent article by PC Magazine on the point, stating in part:

In delineating the psycholinguistic difference between UAVs and drones, Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, quoted a name often invoked when the technological future is feared: George Orwell. “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them,” Stanley wrote in an article on the ACLU’s site. “Mainly we at the ACLU use ‘drones’ because that is the clearest way to communicate. At the same time, if the word continues to carry a reminder that this is an extremely powerful technology capable of being used for very dark purposes, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Even in military operations, drone use is not without question.  From India‘s national newspaper:

Drones — more accurately, armed UAVs — have come to represent all we most loathe about modern warfare. They make killing antiseptic, distancing combatants from the bloody reality of war. Human Rights Watch recently warned that drones were just part of a larger movement towards automated weapons. There are already gun systems which can use algorithms to open fire on targets

In principle, though, UAVs don’t do anything fundamentally different from every weapon that human beings — and our primate ancestors — ever invented: allow a fighter to strike from a distance from where his or her adversary cannot strike back. The spear and the catapult did exactly what the UAV does — as did the medieval crossbow, famously, if ineffectually, banned by Pope Urban II in 1096 for use against Christians because the technology levelled skilled knights of armour and peasant armies.

However, as the expert Joshua Foust argued, some of these arguments reflect little more than technophobia: counter-intuitive as it might seem, machines may prove better-able to make life-and-death judgments than emotional, terrified soldiers.