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The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) continues to be hotly debated within and outside DC, and opinions are both numerous and strongly held.  But you know the knives are out for UAVs when the UAV industry gets a hard time from lawmakers for suggesting that the term commonly used to describe the platform is inaccurate.

At yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, The Future of Drones in America: Law Enforcement and Privacy Considerations, Michael Toscano, President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, pointed out in his opening statement that the word “drone” is misapplied to UAVs.  Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont was having none of it.  Here’s a transcript of the exchange at the hearing, emphasis mine, starting at 47:36…

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Toscano: You probably notice I do not use the term “drone”. The industry refers to a technology of unmanned aircraft systems or UAS’s because this is more than just a pilotless vehicle. A UAS also includes the technology on the ground with a human at the controls. I like to say there is nothing unmanned about unmanned systems. The term drone also carries with it a hostile connotation and does not reflect how UAS’s are actually being used domestically as you heard from Mr. [Benjamin] Miller [Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager, Mesa County Sheriff’s Office; Representative, Airborne Law Enforcement Association]. UAS’s are used to perform dangerous and difficult tasks more safely and more efficiently.  They are used to assess flooding in the Red River in the Upper Midwest.  They are used to help battle wild fires in California.  And they are being used to study everything from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, tornadoes in the Great Plains and volcanoes in Hawaii. Unlike military UAS’s, the systems most likely to be used by public safety agencies are small systems.  They weigh less than five pounds with limited flight duration. You saw two examples here on the table. As for weaponization, it’s a non-starter. The FAA prohibits deploying weapons on any civil aircraft, and for the record AUVSI does not support the weaponization of civil UAS’s. I also want to correct the misconception that there is no regulation of domestic UAS’s. The FAA strictly regulates who, where, when and why unmanned air craft will be flown. If a public entity wants to fly a UAS they must obtain certificate of Authorization or a COA from the FAA. UAS’s are generally flown in line of sight of the operator, lower than 400 feet, and during daylight hours. It is currently…

Leahy: I don’t mean to interrupt because your whole statement will be part of the record but we will have discussion of the 4th amendment and how it involves, and I appreciate you telling us what we should call them but I think why don’t you leave that decision to us. We’ll decide what we’ll call them and you call them whatever you like to call them. 

Sen. Leahy may be interested to know that Lt. Gen. David Deptula, USAF (Ret.), the first general in charge of Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, has also pointed out the inaccuracy of the term “drones”:

The critics don’t understand the reality of “drone” operations, nor do they comprehend that our adversaries are most certainly conducting an aggressive perception management campaign on this issue – a very effective one if the recent hysteria over RPA [(Remotely Piloted Aircraft)] use is a measure of effectiveness. In military parlance, a “drone” is a flying target.

The media like to use it because it is only one word and they don’t have to explain what a “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” is. But the word “drone” connotes a degree of autonomy that RPAs simply do not possess. It takes over 200 people to operate a MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper RPA orbit for 24 hours. This little-known fact among the RPA naysayers is one of the reasons that the use of “drones” allows for more ethical oversight than any other weapon. Drones allow us significantly greater control, oversight, and review before a shot is fired than occurs using manned aircraft or other operations conducted by soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines.

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