Don’t Call it A Drone: Unmanned Vehicle Industry Tries Image Makeover

Unmanned vehicles, better known as "drones," might have massive commercial potential, but they’re linked to warfare in the public’s minds. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is working to change that by adjusting the messaging around the devices.

When the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) held its annual meeting this week, controversy followed.

The one part that was supposed to be covert is the part that is shaping the public perception the most—and that’s a major challenge for the industry.

But rather than get sucked into the protests outside of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in DC, the association worked to change the messaging about its industry. More details:

About the protests: On Tuesday, the association’s convention faced a protest from the progressive advocacy group Code Pink, whose stated goal is to end U.S. wars and fight global militarism. AUVSI is a common target for protest by the group. Medea Benjamin, Code Pink’s cofounder, explained the reason for protesting the event to the Washington Times: “We see the killing and the spying coming together beautifully, and this lobby group, AUVSI, they want more spying in the United States. It’s not enough what the [federal government] is already doing. Why don’t you turn us into a 24/7 surveillance society? The American people don’t want that.”

The challenge the industry faces: The problem the industry will struggle with, as the protests show, is one of “inadvertent branding”—simply, the products’ role in covert operations (such as the one that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida-linked, U.S.-born cleric living in Yemen) threaten to permanently color the perception of the more innocuous uses of the devices also on display at the AUVSI convention. The Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer, who focuses on intelligence issues, underlined this point. “The one part that was supposed to be covert is the part that is shaping the public perception the most—and that’s a major challenge for the industry,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Does the messaging need a change? It’s something that AUVSI President Michael Toscano appears acutely aware of. “The average person on the street, and even intelligent and informed people, when they think of the word ‘drone,’ they think of the military, they think hostile, they think weaponized, they think large and they think autonomous,” he told Breaking Defense. The association appears to have found a tactic to move beyond this issue—by emphasizing that the industry is more than just military machinery. Instead, AUVSI is pushing new terms such as “unmanned aerial systems” and “remotely piloted aircraft” to describe the devices, and it emphasizing that “drone strikes” are simply airstrikes taken on by either manned or unmanned aircraft.

How serious is the industry about changing the outside image? Look no further than the Wi-Fi connections in the media room. According to Breaking Defense’s report, the password for journalists to get online at the conference was “DONTSAYDRONES.”

Time will tell if the semantics—or the password’s subliminal message—have an effect.

AUVSI president Michael Toscano, prior to an appearance on C-SPAN. (Photo via the group's Facebook page)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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