At Drone-Industry Show, the Word ‘Drone’ Passes Muster

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Attendees of the annual conference of the drone industry have a new favorite word to describe the pilotless aircraft: drone.

The simple term was once shunned by company representatives and government workers, who were concerned that the word didn’t convey the vehicles’ sophistication. Last year’s meeting even held a panel on whether it was OK to call a drone a “drone.”

This week in Atlanta, “drone” slipped easily off the tongues of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs whose sales literature often was peppered with the once-avoided term. Amazon.com Inc.’s high-profile announcement in 2013 that it wants to use drones to deliver books and other products to homes and consumers snapping up recreational aircraft for weekend flying have led to a popularization of the word.

“We’re not afraid to use that word anymore,” said Kathleen Swain, chief pilot for the drone program of United Services Automobile Association, a provider of insurance for military families. “Everybody knows a drone is a drone.”

In fact, when USAA received positive news from the Federal Aviation Administration in April about using unmanned aircraft for damage inspections, the company announced on its website, ‘FAA Approves Drone Petition.’

There were holdouts among the 8,000 people attending the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems 2015 conference this week.

The U.S. military, concerned about the association of drones with attacks on terrorists, and the FAA still littered their presentations and talks with an alphabet soup of acronyms: UAV, UAS, sUAS, UUV and more. The terms “unmanned aerial vehicles” or “unmanned aircraft systems” pop up regularly. The International Civil Aviation Organization calls them remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA.

Even so, Brad Koeckeritz, the national unmanned aircraft specialist for the U.S. Interior Department, says “drone” when speaking to a general audience. The agency’s use of drones to douse forest fires, save lives and help manage wildlife has helped boost public acceptance, he said.

“I don’t think we can fight against the tide in terms of what the public calls them,” he said. “It’s shifted for sure.”

Holding Out

Some industry representatives aren’t budging either. They say the routine or monotonous tasks attached to the original meaning of “drone” don’t capture the sophistication of pilotless aircraft, such as Boeing Co.’s ScanEagle.

“We live in the Columbia River gorge where there are a lot of orchards, so when we say ‘drone’ we’re talking about male bees,” said Ryan Hartman, chief executive officer of Bingen, Washington-based Insitu, the Boeing unit that supplies the military and companies with drones.

While insurer USAA still uses official terms for unmanned aircraft in documents, Swain refers to her group as the drone team when speaking with clients.

“Drone is what they know,” she said. “When you say UAV, they say, ‘Huh? I’m confused.”

(Corrects quotation to say ‘orchards’ in 11th paragraph.)
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