The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States' counterterrorism measures has come under intense scrutiny, most prominently during Sen. Rand Paul's marathon filibuster on March 6. Sen. Paul raised the issue with regard to the Obama Administration potentially using the tactic within the legal boundaries of the United States, and against American citizens abroad.
Of course, Sen. Paul and the media at large rarely use the term "unmanned aerial vehicle." In the course of Sen. Paul's filibuster, he used the term precisely once. He said "drone" 245 times. Now the President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Michael Toscano, is taking issue. The drone industry spokesman got into a contentious exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy in a hearing on Wednesday:
You have probably noticed that I do not use the term “drone.” The industry refers to the technology as unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, because they are more than just a pilotless vehicle . A UAS also includes the technology on the ground, with a human at the controls. As I like to say, there is nothing unmanned about an unmanned system.
The term “drone” also carries with it a hostile connotati on and does not reflect how UAS are actually being used domestically. UAS are used to perform dangerous and difficult tasks safely and ef ficiently. They were used to assess the flooding of the Red River in the upper Midwest. They were used to help battle California wildfires. And they are being used to study everything from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, tornadoes in the Great Plains, an d volcanoes in Hawaii .
Unlike military UAS , the systems most likely be used by public safety agencies are small systems, many weighing less than 5 pounds , with limited flight duration. As for weaponization, it is a non - starter. The FAA prohibits d eployin g weapons on civil aircraft . And for the record: AUVSI does not support the weaponization of civil UAS.
Sen. Leahy fired back:
I appreciate you telling us what we should call them but I think why don’t you leave that decision to us. We’ll decide what we’ll call them and you call them whatever you like to call them.
The drone industry has largely held off on a public relations counter-offensive when it comes to the recent high-profile issue. That's unsurprising; poll after poll shows massive support from the American public on the issue of drones. Moreover, the conservative foreign policy establishment is largely supportive of drones. Steven Bucci of the Heritage Foundation told Townhall that he doesn't "have any problem - and neither does Heritage - with the [drone] policy and the program that's been run."
The Obama Administration has used drones to kill three American citizens so far - one of whom was a 16-year-old who was not known to be a terrorist but whose father was a member of al-Qaeda.
As Toscano lays out, the major problem the drone industry has with the word "drone" is its imagery. People may equate drones with "flying robot murder machines" when the technology does indeed have peaceful uses. Regardless, whether they're drones, unmanned aerial vehicles or flying robot murder machines, there are important ethical and legal issues that have arisen with President Obama's drone program. A PR offensive from the drone industry won't change that.
Blog hat tip: Ben Lerner with the Center for Security Policy.
I discussed the Rand Paul filibuster and the United States' drone use policy on Bloggingheads a few weeks ago: