Drone Semantics


“that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”- Romeo & Juliet

Drone Semantics

Drones are described and referred to in a number of different ways, and the language used often reflects the opinion and agenda of the speaker. Whilst there are a range of political reasons for using different terms it is not just politicians and campaigners that need to understand what is being referred to by the different terminology. What differentiates “UAVs” from “Autonomous Weapons Systems” and from “Remotely Piloted Vehicles”? Who is using what terminology and what effect are they trying to provoke, what are they aiming to reveal and what are they trying to conceal?

Lawrence Newcombe describes the range of names applied to drones since their development. He charts the use of the titles “Teleautomaton”, “Aerial Tropedo”, “Pilotless airplane” and “drone” in the early 1900s, through “Special Purpose Aircraft” and “Remotely Piloted Vehicles” in the 1960s, and the explosion of terminology in the 1980s (which coincided with the increased development and use of the technology itself) to include “Unmanned Aircraft”, “Automatically piloted vehicle”, “Unmanned aerial vehicle”, “Unmanned tactical aircraft”, “Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle” and “Remotely operated Aircraft” (p3).

So far, so what? The majority of terms appear to logically reflect the type of aircraft or vehicle and the way in which it might be used. However, it is necessary to note that technology does not develop in a political vacuum. It too is affected by national and international trends, by commentary on what is and is not acceptable in terms of technological development and warfare. Newcome additionally refers to some titles for drones which are not now widely used, for example it is easy to understand (in the prevailing political climate) why the term “Loitering Electronic Warfare Killer” has not caught on!

As illustrated above the words, phrases and acronyms used to describe drones are highly varied, and may be applied according to audience and for political emphasis. For example, the UK Airforce prefer to use the term “remotely piloted aerial systems” (RPAS) over  the term “drones”, as they feel that this emphasises the fact that there is still a pilot “in the loop”, even if they are not actually present in the airborne vehicle. The same objects may also be referred to as “UAVs” or “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”. This emphasises the opposite: that the vehicle is without a pilot. The term UAV is more frequently used by those who want to discuss the increased autonomy of drones, whose primary concerns are about the technological developments which appear to squeeze the human decision-making element out of the loop (for example see Jurgen Altmann). These campaigners may also provocatively utilise the terms “killer robots” and “robot soldiers” to highlight their concerns about the ethics and accountability of increased autonomy for weapons systems. The term “drone” has become particularly associated with the use of killer drones (those equipped with missiles), usually by the US, against insurgents and militant islamists in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. The term is associated with the specific kinds of missions undertaken, particularly the controversial “targeted killing” campaigns. Some note that the drone has become a symbol of this specific period of the Overseas Contingency Operations (previously known as the Global War on Terror). Indeed, it is becoming one of the Obama administration’s most known (ironically despite the much touted secrecy of the operations) and discussed foreign policy elements. In this context the use of drones for extensive periods of surveillance reflects the use of the word “drone” as verb- describing a continuous, monotonous sound. Given this cross over between the experience of those on the ground who describe the anxiety created by hearing their constant surveillance, the term applied to an unmanned aerial vehicle acquires a onomatopoeic quality.

As noted, the type of operation that drones are currently being used for is being closely tied with the use of the technology itself: It may appear as though the use of drones mandates a policy of reconnaissance and targeted killing. The type of missions drones are used for has its own semantic argument with the use of lethal force by drones is referred to by proponents as “surgical”, “clinical” and as “strikes”, whereas opponents refer to it as “targeted killing” or  “extrajudicial killing” or “assassination”. The idea of being “surgical” appears to suggest the careful removal of something unwanted, something that would cause sickness, akin to a cancer or tumour. It implies a low level of collateral damage, if any at all (the Obama administration initially claimed 0% civilian fatalities, something which has now been widely discredited), and for that reason, is portrayed as something desirable in modern warfare. From the other side of the fence, the term “assassination” is loaded with meaning: it has connotations of perfidy and dishonesty, and it is illegal in many countries (including the USA) although there is disagreement as to its legal status under international law. If the Obama Administration’s strikes are viewed as assassination this puts the administration in contravention of Executive Order 11905 and Executive Order 12333, demonstrating the legal importance of the language applied to interpreting actions. It is difficult to identify what, if anything, makes targeted killing qualitatively different from assassination but demonstrating this is essential to ensuring legality as some commentators such as Berkowitz claims that there is no international law banning targeted killing (2003:124). Despite these complexities the term ‘targeted killing’ has “entered common usage” as result of US (and Israeli) policies, and has led to a burst of academic interest in the topic.

It is not just the politicians who are interested in the terminology applied to drones and what is and is not included in the bracket. As Newcome notes “Although some may dismiss this debate as so much word fencing… the distinction between what is (a drone) and what is not is at the heart of how regulators, lawyers, and ultimately, insurers will act on UAVs” (p5) and is therefore of practical importance and relevance. It is not just for those involved in campaigning for or against the use of these objects who need to understand the semantics of the use of drones but the range of individuals listed above amongst any number of others.

Knowing the different tones that phrases and language bestow upon an item is important to understanding the motivations of the individual using those phrases and words. The provenance of any information about the use of drones, particularly given the wide range of opinions, paucity of clear and accurate information and the secretive nature of the US campaign, is essential for both scholars and the public in assessing the accuracy of the information and any bias that might result from the opinions of the writer. Understanding the semantics associated with drone warfare is just one of the many ways that this might be accomplished.


Altmann, J. (2004) “Military Uses of Nanotechnology: Perspectives and Concerns” Security Dialogue, Vol 35, pp61

Berkowitz, B. (2003) The New Face of War: How War will be Fought in the 21st Century, The Free Press.

Newcome, L. (2004) Unmanned Aviation: A brief history of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Pen & Sword Aviation.

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This post was written by lcm263 who has written 17 posts on The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

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