Communicators at Virginia Tech always encounter turbulence in stories describing “unmanned autonomous systems,” commonly referred to as drones.

Talk about hot-button terms.

Unmanned is sexist, as readers such as Rick Barrow, a fixed assets wrangler in the School of Education, have noted. He suggests the gender-neutral “unpiloted” is better

That’s not a bad idea. But I’m not certain if it is accurate to say that if the aircraft is controlled remotely at any point during a flight.
And the problem is, if you don’t use the word “unmanned,” you risk not speaking the language used by industry and government. You are overlooked in their searches.

Type in “drone” in the search box of the Federal Aviation Administration and the first thing you get is a transcription of a webcast that launches into what a drone is (a precision weapons system used by the government to engage the enemy) and what it isn’t – an unmanned autonomous system such as the type used to monitor crops or power lines.

The point being, don’t use the d-word.

Yet, the term “drone journalism” is coming into vogue. A Spokane newspaper website published an aerial video of the annual Polar Bear Plunge race in Lake Coeur d’Alene, which it said was “courtesy of a radio-controlled helicopter and tiny camera.”

Whether that was legal is now being discussed by august bodies such as the Poynter Institute, but no one in those ranks pays much mind to the use of the words “drone” or “unmanned” themselves.

We’ve also heard that a drone is a small buzzing insect that does not do any work (thanks, Dad).

George Lucas tells us a drone is a canister-type or humanoid robot that answers to R2D2 or C3PO … oops, what a minute, that would be droid. Skip that one.

The point is, while industry and government folks look askance at the dreaded d-word, the word itself is becoming a catch-all for practically anything that flies, except for maybe Frisbees™, although the preferred term there is flying disk. Of course, if you holler “toss me the flying disk” across the Drillfield, don’t expect to get much action.

Enough semantics! What does the data tell us?

We went to John Jackson, Virginia Tech’s web communications maestro.

Since Aug. 1, the words drone, drones, and drone research added up to 37 searches on Virginia Tech’s main site.
“Military unmanned aircraft” scored two searches and “unmanned aircraft” landed one.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles” got a hit, but none for unmanned autonomous systems

More irksome, try as we may to eliminate alphabet soup in our communications, UAV in its uppercase and lowercase forms scored 12 searches, and “uav program” received two.

With derivatives of the d-word accounting for about two-thirds of the related searches on the Tech website, we looked at a cloud of the words the media is using to write the story. Again, drones loom large.

It becomes clear that if we want to reach all of these different groups — the public, academics, industry — we have to use the words they are using. Maybe along the way, we can move the terminology forward.