Dave Gilson

Dave Gilson

Senior editor

Dave Gilson is a senior editor at Mother Jones. Read more of his stories, follow him on Twitter, or contact him.

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Dave Gilson is a senior editor at Mother Jones. Read more of his stories, follow him on Twitter, or contact him.

No One Can Agree on What to Call Drones

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Ceci n'est pas un drone.

Early Monday morning, a small, temporarily unidentified flying object crashed on the White House lawn. The mishap, possibly the result of droning under the influence, prompted a salvo of alarming headlines about a stealthy violation of presidential airspace. "A Drone, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House," declared the New York Times. Fox News announced, "White House gets drone defense wake-up call," while New York magazine warned, "Secret Service Can't Protect White House From Drones."

The most ominous-sounding word in those headlines is "drone," a term that's come to encompass everything from the two-pound DJI Phantom quadcopter that flew over the White House fence to the nearly 5,000-pound MQ-9 Reaper, which can be flown remotely via satellite and fire laser-guided missiles at targets eight miles below. As Dutch designer Ruben Pater's Drone Survival Guide conveys, there are drones and then there are drones:

The Drone Survival Guide (in English and Pashto) Ruben Pater

Is there an easier way to differentiate a hi-tech toy from a killing machine? Why not just call that stray quadcopter a remote-controlled or model aircraft? (No one would write a headline such as "A Model Aircraft, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House.")

The Federal Aviation Administration treats lightweight noncommercial drones as model aircraft. (They must stay under 400 feet and can't fly beyond the operator's line of sight.) Yet a true hobby drone is different than a traditional remote-controlled plane in one significant respect: It can fly itself. As former Wired editor Chris Anderson explains on his site DIY Drones, "Usually the UAV is controlled manually by Radio Control (RC) at take-off and landing, and switched into GPS-guided autonomous mode only at a safe altitude." The DJI Phantom can fly itself back home; users can program flight paths into top-of-the-line model. DIY Drones uses the terms UAV and drone interchangeably.

Even if equating personal drones with model aircraft might irk amateur remote pilots, it would help defuse the devices' death-from-above image. That would probably please the manufacturers of military and commercial drones, who would prefer if you don't use the D-word at all. Testifying before the Senate in 2013, the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (the robot lobby) stated, "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…The term 'drone' also carries with it a hostile connotation and does not reflect how UAS are actually being used domestically." Besides UAS, other suggested alternatives to "drone" include Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

The future Marilyn Monroe poses with a World War II-era Radioplane drone. US Army via Wikimedia Commons

While the president and White House freely call them drones, the military is also not keen on the designation. An Air Force spokeswoman told Defense News that "There are some people who are offended by it." And UAS has its detractors: Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a reporter last year, "You will never hear me use the word 'drone,' and you'll never hear me use the term 'unmanned aerial systems.' Because they are not. They are remotely piloted aircraft."

Yet for critics of remote-control warfare, the word economically delivers an explosive payload—much like a drone. The American Civil Liberties Union has endorsed using "drone" rather than the officially sanctioned abbreviations. "These acronyms are technical, bland, and bureaucratic. That's probably their principal advantage from the point of view of those who want to separate them from the ugly, bloody, and controversial uses to which they've been put by the CIA and U.S. military overseas," writes ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. "[I]f the word continues to carry a reminder that this is an extremely powerful technology capable of being used for very dark purposes, then that's not necessarily a bad thing."

To further complicate things, some people insist that "drone" only refers to unpiloted aircraft used for target practice—the term's original meaning. As analyst Steve Zaloga explained to Defense News, it was coined by an American admiral who in 1935 witnessed a demonstration of a remote-controlled British aircraft dubbed the Queen Bee: He "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." (Fun fact: Future bombshell Marilyn Monroe assembled small target drones in a California factory during World War II.) According to Zaloga, the military kept calling all remote-controlled aircraft drones until the 1990s. (He's partial to calling them RPAs.)

Drones will likely remain the most convenient way to describe the rapidly expanding variety of…drones. But whatever you do, don't call them "pilotless drones." That phrase especially infuriates pedants, like Drone Man, the San Francisco Chronicle reader who left an angry voicemail expressing his disgust at the paper's use of the seemingly redundant (yet grammatically acceptable) term. Here's the dance mix: 

 

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Young Fidel Castro Wrote FDR to Ask for 10 Bucks

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 1:04 PM EST

In November 1940, a young Cuban student named Fidel Castro sent a handwritten letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Writing in English, Castro congratulated the president on his reelection and requested "a ten dollars bill green american…because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them." Thinking strategically, the future Cuban dictator also offered access to his country's iron to build American ships.

He signed off with a flourish:

National Archives

The letter from the now 88-year-old Castro (who was 14 when he wrote it, not 12 as he said) now resides in the National Archives. FDR probably never saw the letter. Castro did receive a response—but no cash—from the US Embassy in Havana. The polite snub officially marks the first exchange between Castro and the United States—and the beginning of a long, acrimonious relationship that may be about to thaw

Text of the letter (errors and all):

Mr Franklin Roosvelt, President of the United States.

My good friend Roosvelt I don't know very English, but I know as much as write to you.
I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be President for a new (periodo).
I am twelve years old.
I am a boy but I think very much but I do not think that I am writing to the President of the United States.
If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.

[…]

I don't know very English but I know very much Spanish and I suppose you don't know very Spanish but you know very English because you are American but I am not American.
(Thank you very much) Good by. Your friend,

Fidel Castro

If you want iron to make your ships I will show to you the bigest (minas) of iron of the land. They are in Mayari Oriente Cuba.

 

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