"Drones" vs "UAVs" -- What's Behind A Name?

Representatives of the drone industry and other drone boosters often make a point of saying they don’t like to use the word “drones.” When my colleague Catherine Crump and I were writing our drones report in 2011, we talked over what terminology we should use, and decided that since our job was to communicate, we should use the term that people would most clearly and directly understand. That word is “drones."

Drone proponents would prefer that everyone use the term “UAV,” for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or “UAS,” for Unmanned Aerial System (“system” in order to encompass the entirety of the vehicle that flies, the ground-based controller, and the communications connection that connects the two). These acronyms are technical, bland, and bureaucratic. That’s probably their principal advantage from the point of view of those who want to separate them from the ugly, bloody, and controversial uses to which they’ve been put by the CIA and U.S. military overseas.

I suppose there is a case to be made that domestic drones are a different thing from overseas combat drones. Certainly, there’s a wide gulf separating a $17 million Reaper drone armed with Hellfire missiles and a hand-launched hobbyist craft buzzing around somebody’s back yard. But drone proponents themselves would be the first to say that drones are a tool—one that can be used for many different purposes. They can be used for fun, photography, science, surveillance, and yes, raining death upon people with the touch of a button from across the world. Even the overseas military uses of drones vary, including not just targeted killing but also surveillance and logistics.

Putting aside well-founded fears that even domestically we may someday see the deployment of weaponized drones, in the end, the difference between overseas and domestic drones is a difference in how the same tool is used. Regardless of whether you’ve got a Predator, a Reaper, a police craft, or a $150 backyard hobby rotorcraft, that tool is what it is. What it is is a drone.

I can’t touch on this subject without quoting from George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell argued that bland and needlessly complicated language was a political act—a symptom of attempts to cover up things. “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them,” he wrote. Defending the English language against such obfuscatory usages, he argued, requires writers to:

  • Use “the fewest and shortest words that will cover one's meaning.”
  • “Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”
  • “Never us a long word where a short one will do.”
  • “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

All of which back up our decision to stick with the word “drones.” In light of the overseas uses of drone technology, it’s worth noting Orwell’s conclusion:

Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.

If the word “drones” has horrible connotations, it’s because the technology has in fact been associated with horrible things. Many Americans may not pay attention, but when U.S. drones bring dismembering explosions down upon wedding parties, women, children, and other innocent civilians, they generate all the warm feelings and associations in those countries that the Boston Marathon bombing brought here.

In any event, if we change the word we use for drones and they continue to be used for such purposes, then the new word will just gain the same associations as the old. Linguists call that the “euphemism treadmill”—the process by which euphemisms lose their value as euphemisms and take on all the negative coloring of the original word. For example, the words “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot” were once neutral terms referring to specific levels of mental disability. They were replaced with the euphemism “mentally retarded”—but in time that has also come to be seen as offensive.

The good news for drone boosters is that the very fluidity of the meaning of words that makes a euphemism treadmill possible also means there is plenty of opportunity for the word “drone” to gain more positive connotations over time. If the technology does, in fact, bring benefits to our lives, and not just continue as a surveillance and killing tool, then the word will start to take on the warm and fuzzy tones its proponents would like.

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.

View comments (14)
Read the Terms of Use


Concerning the use of Drones.
I can understand the use of Drones in law enforcement with restrictions and rules.
People are forgetting a long established law over your private Air Rights.
(The government allowed airplanes that fly 1000's of feet up to fly over your home or business for obvious reasons they could not skip over homes and business'.)
We have a person who owns a small hover craft that you strap to your back and he hovers very close to the tops of our homes. This should not be allowed either, this is in our air space that we privately own.)
In this country we are loosing our freedoms and privacy more and more in so many areas. We are asleep in this country. Thus, 9/11 happened.


You miss the most obvious point about why those in this field don't call them drones. Namely, drones specifically refer to unmanned vehicles intended for target practice. This term has been widely used since the '50s and maybe even earlier. Many of these drones were not actively piloted and had simple guidance systems (fly to this point to get shot at). On the other hand, UAVs are a relatively new term that only recently replaced RPV (remotely piloted vehicle) used to designate unmanned aircraft designed for surveillance. Thus, all drones are UAVs, but not all UAVs are drones. Why you can fault them for using bland acronyms, you can't fault them for not agreeing to misusing the term, those in Deer Field, Colorado notwithstanding. As a comparison, while many laypersons use the terms laws, regulations, bills and resolutions interchangeably, their lack of understanding of the legal system doesn't make that use correct.


What’s in a word? If the meaning is obscure – plenty. I am sure George Orwell would have been the first to agree that while a simplified word or phrase is to be desired over more complicated words or phrases, the choice of word also has to be accurate and to convey the full meaning. The descriptive use of multiple words becomes necessary if a simpler alternative is misleading. The aerospace industry has used the word “drone” for decades to indicate a pilotless flying vehicle usually towed behind another aircraft and used, for example, for target practice. Therefore, a drone is indeed a UAV – but all UAVs are certainly not drones. Furthermore, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are definitely not drones. With use, however, words can take on new meanings and the Oxford English Dictionary now defines drone as a “remotely piloted aircraft” (RPA). So the meaning of the word has evolved. Nevertheless, UAS and drone are NOT synonymous and the authors’ criticism of the industry’s insistence on using RPA, UAV or UAS, even when used in the correct context, is disingenuous in the extreme. Simplistic charges of these phrases being “technical, bland, and bureaucratic” are trite. The purpose is to convey understanding, not to be brief.
Other phrases within the article also mislead the reader. Thus the sentence, “Putting aside well-founded fears that even domestically we may someday see the deployment of weaponized drones” is a claim made without legal argument or documentary evidence. In fact the opposite is true. Current federal law forbids the weaponizing of any non-military aircraft in the skies over the US, manned or unmanned. Therefore, in what sense are such claims “well-founded”? (Pointing the reader to an online blog by another uninformed writer is hardly supportive or helpful.)
Similarly, to suggest that a “Predator, a Reaper, a police craft, or a $150 backyard hobby rotorcraft” are simply the same tools used differently is unsupportable. Let's reverse the logic; if they were the same tools, they could presumably be used in the same way. Perhaps then the authors would like to explain fully how a $150 backyard hobby rotorcraft could be “armed with Hellfire missiles”. Clearly, they are not the same tools, anymore than my family car is the same tool as a huge tractor-trailer just because they use the same highways.
The ACLU should be better than this. They should be focusing on the real issues at hand, namely how to protect citizens’ privacy rights while at the same time not stifling the growth of a technology that will have enormous benefits to US citizens. Where was the ACLU when smart phones came out with built-in GPS, cameras and phones? Where were they when the internet, search engines and email came out? All of these technologies are potential threats to our privacy, and yet they are all accepted as wonderfully beneficial tools for all of us. The ACLU should not divert attention from the real issue - which is the security and use of data, no matter how collected - with a trivial and highly misleading argument over the choice of words


Your argument is really silly. The reason they would prefer to use the term "UAV" rather than "drone" is to distinguish modern technology from old technology. The military has had "drones" for years. However those drones were "targets". They were gunnery or radar targets; referred to as "target drones". So, you can imagine that no one wants their high tech hardware to be associated with a dumb target. Rather than playing around with silly word games you should have picked up a history book.


Comments 2, 3, and 4 are pretty good. Not all UAVs are drones. A $100 radio-controlled model airplane is not a "drone." If people think the word "drone" has a negative connotation because of the word's connection with military UAVs that fire Hellfire missiles and gather intelligence for the military, then maybe it's because that's what "drone" means - "military UAVs that fire Hellfire missiles and gather intelligence for the military." Or something to that effect. Just because the first type of UAV that people became familiar with were "drones" does not mean that all UAVs are drones. This would be like an Afghan calling all Americans "soldiers," just because the first Americans they happened to meet were soldiers.

It would be helpful, though obviously not likely to happen, if the ACLU would stop pretending that they use the word "drone" for reasons other than fear-mongering. An honest discussion would use the word "UAV" or "UAS", which is what they are, and not "drone", which is what most of them aren't. I think it's pretty condescending to think the American people are too stupid to understand what "UAV" means.


UAV's are not targets, sometimes they are used to spray our atmosphere with aluminum and barium, heavy metals that we can inhale.


Aluminum and barium.


What is the chances of an American citizen being "watched" by the US government if he was "asked" (suspected?) of assisting someone who is supposedly under terrorist watch during Sept 11, 2001, even though he has nothing to do with it, nor does he know the person supposedly under terrorist watch?


There are quite a few comments above that understand that UAS/UAVs are not drones, not because of being politically correct, but because of a desire to be technically correct.

Further complicating the issue is the ACLU (as well as many in the media) using photographs of Department of Homeland Security Predator Bs alongside article on armed military UAS. DHS UAS are not armed, so it would be better, and correct, to use a picture of a military UAS when writing about military uses of UAS.


My dad was a fighter/bomer pilot in Vietnam; My brother a B-52 pilot.

What is the difference between a strike by a fighter jet, say like f-15s, which kill from 40 miles away, B-52s, which drop their HUGE loads of bombs, including nuclear bombs, from very high up, or fighters from Aircraft Carriers?

Is it the distance the pilot sits from the controls? Or the distance the pilot sits from the target?

We have and have had air-to-air refueling for decades, so men can take off from US soil and bomb the other side of the world.

"Drone" is an incindiary word whose use is made to be mixed up with UAV, and it is UAVs which do the damage compained about.

But what is the difference between a fighter jet, a long range bomber, and an UAV? How is one more dangerous than the other?


Stay Informed