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Drones: Navigating the reputational landscape

The negative reputation of drones presents a challenge for both the developers and operators of the technology. The ability of commercial users of drones to curry political favour for their initiatives will likely become the key juncture for the growth of the industry and wider public acceptance of drone use in the future.

The media narrative on drones thus far has largely been constructed by those campaigning against their use. Ethical debate over the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan, sparked by the criticism from NGOs such as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on the numbers of civilian casualties resulting from their use, has tarnished the US government’s positioning of drones as a precise and effective tool, keeping troops out of harm’s way. For the majority of the public, drones have a poor reputation and by association so do those governments that propagate the technology.

The word “drones” is seldom used by industry heads or military/intelligence officers who prefer the term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV, and even those speaking at the drone and aerial robotics conference 2013 in New York were reluctant to use the term due to the negative reputational connotations it carries.

In reality, the word “drone” encompasses a wide range of military, commercial and recreational technologies, and drones are now seeing significantly more commercial application. Amazon has floated ideas around drone parcel delivery, the technology has been used for monitoring crops in the US, and the Chinese government has used drones to spot excessive pollutants.

It could be argued that the reputations of defence companies are vulnerable in their proliferation of a technology that has been criticised for the damage it causes that is collateral to mission objectives. However, the fact that the accuracy of a drone strike fundamentally hinges on the quality of the intelligence on which the targeting is premised leaves the associative effects on corporate reputation largely outside the scope of control for these companies.

Thus far, the reputations of defence companies manufacturing drone technologies have been largely immune to the criticisms levelled at the operators of the product, having featured in less than 5% of media coverage reporting on the technology. However, the rising degree of autonomy in drones has created significantly more criticism of these companies. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jody Williams was recently featured on NewsRT berating the development of “auto-kill” drones with automatic threat response capabilities and Williams has since campaigned for the laws on future robotic warfare to be pre-emptively discussed in Geneva.

Public attitudes towards new technologies have significant potential to influence policy decisions on defence, as demonstrated by campaigns against landmines and the eventual Ottawa Treaty. The continued use of “drones” as a catch-all term for all unmanned aerial vehicles has created a reputational relationship between the military and commercial facets of their use. Wider public acceptance of drone use in the future largely depends on the ability of companies like Amazon to overcome the latent negativity and to write a more positive narrative on the technology. The success of such ventures in navigating the social and political landscape around drones will likely dictate the growth of the big business of unmanned flight.



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