Some makers cringe to hear word ‘drone’

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LAS VEGAS — Unmanned aerial vehicles may be exploding in popularity, but among industry leaders, their common moniker — “drone” — is rapidly going out of style.

“People in the past thought of drones as stupid and unsophisticated,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which this week is holding its annual convention in Las Vegas. “When we say unmanned system or unmanned vehicle, it gives the connotation that there’s more to it than just the piece that’s flying.”

To Mr. Toscano and others, that’s an important distinction. These days, drones are much more than glorified model airplanes. They carry out risky missions in the Middle East, assist law enforcement agencies in the field and are a part of other complex operations.

In the near future, drones will do much more. Currently available to only the military, police departments and government agencies, the crafts will be licensed for personal and commercial use beginning in 2015.

Regardless of how widely used they become, Mr. Toscano admits that the sector likely won’t be able to shake the name.

“Part of it is our fault. We don’t have one single terminology that we use. That adds to the confusion, but we tend to stay away from ‘drone,’” he said.

Webster’s Dictionary defines drone as “a pilot-less airplane, helicopter, or ship controlled by radio signals.” The term has become ingrained in the public lexicon, even if sector leaders don’t believe it paints a wholly accurate picture of what the crafts can do.

Changing the negative public perception of unmanned vehicles will happen only when people begin to see the positive things they can do, such as helping fight forest fires or search for missing children, Mr. Toscano said.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be the actions, what these things do, that people understand,” he said.

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