Brief mention: Technical terminology

Caught on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning, a piece on Gen. Norton Schwartz, beginning:

The top officer in the U.S. Air Force, Gen. Norton Schwartz, is stepping down Friday after four years on the job.

Schwartz got the job after his predecessor was fired for — among other things — clashing with his Pentagon bosses over how many fighter jets the military needs.

Schwartz is most likely to be remembered for pushing another kind of aircraft: drones.

At this moment, dozens of these unmanned aircraft are flying high above Afghanistan.

Just don’t call them drones when speaking with Schwartz.

“Drones mischaracterize what these things are. They’re not dumb. Nor are they unmanned, actually. They’re remotely piloted aircraft,” he says.

They are remotely piloted from places like Creech Air Force Base, not far from the glittering hotels of Las Vegas. The pilots there work a joystick on an aircraft flying half a world away. And Schwartz says this will be the future of the Air Force.

So: don’t say drone, or unmanned aircraft, around Gen Schwartz.

This is not the practice of the FAA, as described in this Wikipedia entry:

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is either controlled autonomously by computers in the vehicle, or under the remote control of a navigator, or pilot … on the ground or in another vehicle.

… In the United States, the United States Navy and shortly after the Federal Aviation Administration has adopted the name unmanned aircraft (UA) to describe aircraft systems without the flight crew on board. More common names [depending on what you mean by “common”] include: UAV, drone, remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), remotely operated aircraft (ROA), and …

What’s the issue here? The FAA terminology focuses on the fact that drones are unmanned, in the sense that there’s no flight crew on board. Gen. Schwartz’s preferred terminology focuses on the fact that a trained Air Force officer pilots a drone, in the sense that the office directs the actions of the aircraft, much as a pilot on board would. (It’s no surprise that Schwartz wants to stress the role of his officers in these operations.) Both formulations reflect aspects of the truth; neither is incorrect.

As I’ve said endlessly, labels are not definitions. But they can direct your attention in one direction or another.


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