History Tuesday: The Origin of the term Drone

A U.S. Predator drone in Kandahar, Afghanistan, one of the hubs of the Obama administration's aggressive targeted-killing war against al-Qaida. (Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

As reporters covering the Pentagon in the 21st century, writing about unmanned systems is a given. The problem we often have is what to call them.

What the average person on the street calls “drones” have different nomenclatures inside the five-sided building. And if you use the wrong term- say, calling something a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) versus RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) in a story – you’ll hear about it, either from irate officials or irate readers.

Which is why a letter in this week’s paper copy of Defense News caught our eye this morning. Titled “A Word With a History,” the letter, written by analyst Steve Zaloga of the Teal Group, lays out the history of the term “drone” and makes a compelling case for why we’re probably all over-thinking it.

Writes Zaloga:

“Drone is one of the oldest official designations for remotely controlled aircraft in the American military lexicon. in 1935, when the chief of naval operations  Adm. William Standley, visited Britain, he was given a demonstration of the Royal Navy’s new DH 82B Queen Bee remotely controlled aircraft that was used for anti-aircraft gunnery practice. On his return, Standley assigned an office, Cmdr. Delmer Fahrney at the Radion Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, to develop a similar system for US Navy gunnery training. Fahrney adopted the name drone to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee. Drone became the official US Navy designation for target drones for many decades.

Zaloga, the author of the 2008 book “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Robotic Air Warfare 1917-2007,” adds that the US Navy first deployed armed drones in the Solomon Islands in 1944.

So if the term drone goes back almost 80 years, why the hubbub about what to call these devices? Zaloga thinks it comes down to the general sensitivity around the concept of drones.

“The terminology issue is a symptom of other issues,” he told Intercepts in a phone interview Monday. “There’s a lot of sensitivity over armed drones becoming a political issue, and I think that’s touched off a definitional problem. I think its just a subset of general touchiness over the whole drone issue.”

“There seems to be a tendency on the part of the Pentagon to try and introduce new vocabulary every three or four years,” he added.” If you look at tanks, no one calls the next generational vehicle an “Armored Battleship” or something. A tank is a tank is a tank. With these systems, they’ve changed it so often that everyone is confused, which I think is why people fall back on drone.”

According to Zaloga,the term drone was used exclusively until the tail end of the Vietnam war, when the Air Force started using the term RPV (remotely piloted vehicles.) At some point in the 1990s, that was changed to UAV. A decade later, someone decided these should be called “systems” instead of “vehicles,”  and UAS came into shape. And then a few years ago, the new standard of RPA came into style – a term Zaloga thinks is the best descriptor of the bunch.

So there you have it. The origin of the term “drone,” with a little context for your next argument about whether that Predator flying overhead is a UAV, RPA or some other acronym. And remember, if you’re interested in writing a letter for the next Defense News edition, email us at defenseletters@defensenews.com

Aaron Mehta

Aaron Mehta

Air Warfare Correspondent at Defense News
Aaron covers the Air Force for Defense News. In his spare time, he tweets about the Air Force for Defense News. Follow him @AaronMehta
Aaron Mehta