Hey, New York: Don't Call It a Drone

The FAA and FBI are investigating a report from a pilot who reported seeing a small "drone" over New York City. But the conflation, as even the Senate remains shrouded in secrecy, of every unmanned aircraft into the single term "drone" isn't just inaccurate — it's dangerous.

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Yes, there are drones flying over New York City. I know this because I have one. Except: not really.

Whether or not the city is buzzing with drones became an object of media fascination this morning. The FAA and now the FBI are investigating a report from an Alitalia pilot who reported seeing a small "drone aircraft" with helicopter rotors about 1,500 feet over Brooklyn as he was landing at New York's JFK airport yesterday afternoon. The press, seizing on a year loaded with secretive news about targeting killing by way of scary robotic aircraft, jumped at the idea: Gawker noted CNN's hand-wringing; the Associated Press did a quick brief; Google news offers some 4,400 results in a search on the topic.

Blame linguistics for the excitement. In my closet at home, I have an AR.Drone2.0, which is a hyper-dorky name for what is essentially a hi-definition camera attached to four flimsy rotors. I don't call it a "drone" but, rather, a "quadcopter" — because when people hear "drone" they think this:

… not this:

I assure you, the former wouldn't fit in my closet. The chassis of the latter fits in the palm of my hand. Or, to use another example, the first time I flew it I accidentally crashed it into a basketball hoop.

The conflation of every unmanned, piloted aircraft into the single term "drone" isn't just inaccurate, it's dangerous. It adds unneeded complexity to public debate. When reports surfaced that the Los Angeles Police Department wanted to use a drone to hunt for Chris Dorner, the media had to differentiate between a small, heat-detecting craft and an armed, missile-launching Predator stamped with the LAPD logo. Some didn't bother elucidating the difference.

Drones as unseen killers of Yemenese terrorists (and children) are exciting, fascinating, scary, and, as the Senate Intelligence Committee continued to find out today ahead of its vote on would-be CIA director John Brennan, masked in secrecy. People who own quadcopters like mine like to appropriate the term themselves in part because it's imbued with this sense of danger, like how roller skating became edgy once it was done on "Rollerblades." Consider all of the conflation at work in this ABC report, again from Gawker.

What the pilot described sounds a lot like what I have, or like this slightly larger one. But how is it described? "Who it belongs to runs the range from hobbyist to terrorist," the reporter warns, later adding, "even if the drone belongs to a hobbyist, that doesn't make it any less dangerous to a plane it collides with." Let me assure you: If the drone is anything like mine, any terrorist using it to take down a plane would be sorely disappointed. My "drone" weighs about 420 grams, so a battle between it and a jumbo jet would approximate a battle between me and a mosquito. Even if it were to fly into the jet's engine — a tricky bit of piloting, as my basketball hoop example might suggest — it's approximately one-seventh of the mass of the Canadian geese that took out Chesley Sullenberger's engines. A report of "a small quadcopter flying harmlessly near a jet" lacks a bit of the zest ABC brought to the story.

Of course hobbyists (Is that what I am? Ugh.) shouldn't fly their quadcopters near JFK runways — if only because the things are tricky to pilot. What they should be used for is beautiful, late afternoon video of New York's Riverside Park. I'll note that when I did so, not one single media entity could have cared less.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.