A drone is still a drone by any other name

Upending the Basin rotation

We’re always on the look out for innovative stories and reporting techniques at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

In a couple weeks we’ll launch a series on civilian applications of drones for gathering information about the environment. I teach a course encompassing remote sensing, including the use of drones, as newsgathering tools.

So a story in the print edition of the New York Times, Drones Offer Journalists a Wider View, caught my eye at Monday’s breakfast table. It’s an interesting enough piece about a controversial technology. But what startled me was this sentence:

“Drones, or ‘unstaffed aerial systems,’ as many of their handlers prefer to call them, are meant to fly automatically, without skilled pilots.”

Huh?

I’ve been looking at drones and journalism for about a year. And I never heard anyone refer to these craft as “unstaffed aerial systems.”

Even more puzzling is that a colleague sent me a link to the online version of the story that referred to them as “unmanned aerial systems.” That is a fairly common phrase in the world of drones. People fighting the military connotations that “drone” conjures favor it as they push for peaceful applications.

Apparently in an effort at gender-neutral language, someone at The Times had switched out unmanned for unstaffed.

The company's Octocopter. Image: EAI

Is this a drone or an unmanned aerial system?  Image: EAI

Language is powerful. We should avoid sexist words and phrases. But this attempt is a bit over the top. For one thing, it’s wrong. Most people in the drone business don’t use unstaffed as a way to describe these craft.

When I contacted The Times to see what was up, I heard back from Patrick LaForge, the guy who oversees the copy desks and night digital production there. He wrote, in part:

“The reporters wrote ‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ but an editor was overzealous in applying a style guideline for the first national print edition. The result was the unnatural phrase you noticed. After the reporters objected, common sense prevailed, and the original wording was restored for later versions, including the one on the website. You must have received the early print edition.

“Please accept my apology for any consternation this has caused.”

Hey, no problem. And thanks for the prompt explanation.

Besides, it is fascinating to see how language struggles to keep pace with technology. That said, I’m betting that unmanned aerial system isn’t going to displace drone.  I understand the concern with the weaponized connotations of that word.

But awkward jargon will never replace a simple single word – especially in media. And if this technology takes off as predicted, the public will learn soon enough that drones aren’t only used by the military to fight terrorists.

Before contacting The Times, I asked Matthew Schroyer, the founder of DroneJournalism.org, a website and organization that explores this technology’s application for reporting, if he had ever heard of the “unstaffed” term.

This story is part of Great Lakes Echo's 'Skywatch' series (UAV Photo: APV Hovershots)

This story is part of Great Lakes Echo’s ‘Skywatch’ series (UAV Photo: APV Hovershots)

He hadn’t. And Schroyer pointed out that even if the term is nonsexist, it’s also not right. While there may be no one riding in the seat of a quadcopter, it is certainly staffed – often even manned – by someone somewhere.

“How do you feel about ‘unoccupied aircraft system?’” Schroyer wrote. “It’s gender neutral, and still reflects the fact that there are people on the ground minding it. Or not at all, if it’s entirely robotic.”

Uh…no.

That still sounds like something out of a Delta Airlines aircraft maintenance manual.

My bet: Drone sticks.