THE EVOLUTION OF UNMANNED TERMINOLOGY –
SHAPING THE FUTURE OF UNMANNED SYSTEMS
By Reuven Ben-Shalom
An Israeli Air Force jet reportedly intercepted an unmanned aircraft over the Gaza strip. But when relating to the same type of technology operated by our side, the Air Force doesn’t call it unmanned, but remotely-manned. And in English, with international partners, they call it remotely-piloted.
Unmanned terminology in Israel went through several phases. In the beginning, we just said MALAT, which is the Hebrew acronym for plane without a pilot. When small UAVs came online, we coined the term MAZLAT, which looks like the acronym for Mazel Tov, but in fact means tiny plane without a pilot.
Then came the acronym CATBAM, which stands for unmanned aerial vehicle and served as a good Hebrew equivalent of UAV. But in pursuit of a human-centric agenda, the Israeli Air Force took it one step forward, by changing CATBAM to CATMAM, which literally means aircraft manned from afar, or remotely manned aerial vehicle.
But again – only if it’s ours. An Iranian drone is still just unmanned.
Apparently, terminology is not merely a technicality, but a cultural reflection of technological evolution.
Let’s take a quick look at current terminology. An aircraft with three rotors is a Tricopter. The setup with four is a Quadcopter, Quadricopter, or Quadrocopter. An aerial vehicle with six rotors is a Hexacopter, and with eight – an Octocopter. But a generic term which covers all the drones with blades is Multicopter.
The proper Hebrew term is Rav-Lahav. Rav means rabbi, but also multi, so Rav-Lahav means Multi-Blade. It is also commonly referred to as Rachfan which literally means: that which Hovers.
There are multiple synonyms used interchangeably in the unmanned aircraft industry. Because the evolution of aviation led us to perceive the “normal” state of an aircraft as having a pilot, drone terminology has evolved with an emphasis on the absence of the pilot, such as un-manned, unpiloted, uninhabited, non-crewed, pilotless, and cockpitless aircrafts.
Popular acronyms are the good-old Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which turned into Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), mainly because these days it’s cool to refer to systems rather than components. And if you want to sound profound, you say system of systems.
Then we have the Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle System (UAVS), Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS), Mini or Miniature Unmanned Aerial System (MUAS), Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) , or simply Unmanned Aircraft (UA).
It’s funny that when drones are small enough, we don’t feel the need to specify that they are unmanned, such as in Micro Air Vehicle (MAV). The question is, how small do they need to be to make it obvious that there are no little people inside?
After getting used to the fact that machines can actually fly themselves, we now have terms which relate to the independent nature of modern technology, such as Robotic Aerial System (RAS), or Autonomous Aerial System (AAS).
There are terms which reflect both, such as Automated Piloted Vehicle (APV).
But we are pretty much obsessed with clarifying that humans are still in control. So, we have the Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA), Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Remotely Piloted Aerial Vehicle (RPAV), and of course - the Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS).
We are gradually introduced to a new evolutional phase, where an aircraft may be optionally piloted, such as Sikorsky’s Optimally Piloted Vehicle.
I keep using the word evolution. Biological evolution is a great metaphor for technological advancement. Generally speaking, evolution means change in characteristics of populations over successive generations, by genetic variation, reproduction and natural selection - that is, survival of the fittest in an ever-changing environment.
Technological evolution is very similar. Driven by necessity to meet our needs and wants, and guided and constrained by available knowhow and resources, we develop ever-improving machines with better specs and better traits. Of course, machines don’t have babies, but the metaphor is good enough.
Bottom line, we see change and improvement over time, from primitive prototypes to superior technologies, by natural selection at every stage. Actually, it’s not natural selection, but artificial selection, because we do the choosing.
We do the same in biological evolution. Artificial selection - that is, humans selectively breeding for desired traits, leads to better crops, exquisite orchids, and strange dogs.
But with technological innovation, it’s much more than humans choosing.
We mistakenly perceive ourselves as calculated and analytical beings, led by plans, risk management and cost-benefit calculations. But this is far from the truth. Our actions are heavily influenced by our beliefs, our fears, our conceptions and misconceptions, by cognitive biases, by our culture, and mainly by our BIG FAT EGO.
Perhaps if we were only led by practical considerations, we would no longer send human pilots to babysit bombs, but simply send the bombs to take out the targets independently. If it were not for a variety of influences, would our technologies have been exactly the same? Probably not.
This is why terminology is important. Words do much more than describe thing. They shape our perception, and therefore influence our actions in directing technological development.
Proper terminology is essential. When terms are vague and confusing, it’s hard to focus collective efforts. Precise and clear categorization is vital for regulation, aimed at mitigating safety and security challenges.
Also, public support may waver if terms give the wrong idea. For instance, the term drone which used to describe passive, pre-programmed or radio-controlled target practice dummies, has, in recent years, gained somewhat of a negative connotation, with growing controversy about Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS). Some people genuinely fear the rise of killer robots! Well, at least when they’re big. Microdrone doesn’t sound too scary.
Unmanned technology is progressing by leaps and bounds, while unmanned terminology is having a hard time keeping up. Remote Control sounds like a toy. Unmanned raises the question - why not Unwomaned? Autonomous sounds too independent, when humans are still in the loop. Remotely-Piloted is ridiculous, as modern systems need no real piloting, and clinging to old narratives won’t change the fact that soon, artificially-intelligent swarms of robots will operate autonomously. They will not be piloted or manned - not even remotely.
Also, robots will seamlessly traverse different mediums. Don’t forget that I mentioned only aerial vehicles, but there are also surface and underwater marine vessels, ground vehicles, subterranean robots, and spacecrafts. And they all have their own acronyms!
In conclusion, we must rethink the way we name these machines, and break away from old traditions, PR campaigns, and the constraints of our EGO.
Just as we no longer need to say “cordless phone” (of course it’s cordless), perhaps we can stop saying unmanned, or pushing the remotely-piloted and remotely-manned agenda.
We should coin simple terms to describe these machines. Terms that keep us all on the same page; terms that enable robust regulation; terms that drive innovation; terms that don’t scare anybody; and terms that won’t sound ridiculous in the near future.
Based on a presentation at UVID2019 – Unmanned Conference on Unmanned Vehicles.