01/17/2014 09:57 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

Why the Military Needs to Rebrand Drones


Recently, the Department of Defense announced that unmanned systems, what we commonly call "drones," will play an increased role in the U.S. military over the next 25 years. If this projection is accurate (and it likely is), the Pentagon needs to rebrand drones -- quickly -- or it risks losing the support of the American public.

Despite being popular with the military, drones draw inordinate domestic and international criticism, not just because of what they are -- a new tool of war -- but what they evoke: the cultural anxiety of the machine as master.

Consider Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who last year filibustered CIA Director John Brennan's nomination for over 12 hours. Paul's central objection was that the Obama administration had refused to rule out assassinating American citizens, via drones, on U.S. soil -- a hypothetical that bordered on a conspiracy theory, but nonetheless received enormous public attention.

Today, legal conferences focus on drones and international law, researchers meticulously track every death caused by drones, and, for many, the humpbacked Predator has become the universal symbol for American imperialism.

What is the source of all of this fuss? I believe that these machines tap into deep psychological fears of modern culture: the fear of the sentient computer. As a result, for many, drones are irrationally scary.

Drones embody the science-fiction trope of the cyborg, the half human/half computer being. The image of the cyborg emerged in Western culture as our society grappled with the computer technologies (from early warning systems to the PC) that emerged in the nuclear age. Typically, we fear cyborgs and their stereotypical lack of emotion -- and they often only become "good" characters when they transcend their machine-self and become more human.

And today's drones do seem like they came from a bad movie script. The names of the two best-known Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV), the "Reaper" and the "Predator," would be at home in Terminator. With such overheated lingo, it takes little more to link drones to the fear of the runaway robot that brings about humanity's doom.

Indeed, the drone mystique has incorporated itself into today's popular culture. Consider Tom Cruise's latest flick, Oblivion. The movie's villain is a giant robot with an army of drones, each a futuristic version of the Predator. Now think: Recently, how many movies have you watched where the drones are the good guys?

The Pentagon needs to combat mistrust of drone technology, not simply to win approbation for its new tactics and technology, but because the DoD projects that domestic consumers (from law enforcement to Amazon) will purchase the lion's share of drones over the next 25 years. By creating economies of scale for manufacturers, these other organizations will help lower the cost of unmanned systems for the military.

How can the government convince Americans to embrace the drone? First, break the link between drones and the cyborg trope from science fiction. At a basic level, we need softer nomenclature for unmanned systems. Here, the military is starting to catch on. The newest generation of the Predator has a less threatening name: the "Grey Eagle."

But more should be done to rebrand the drone. For one, the word "drone" needs a replacement, much in the way that car companies are talking about inventing "driverless cars," not "drone cars." And the Pentagon needs to stop using terms like "swarm" to refer to large flocks of futuristic, self-guided missiles.

More importantly, the military needs to emphasize that human beings operate drones safely and carefully (though, not without human error). We need to make the Predator pilots into the cool characters of Top Gun, so people think beyond the technology to the people who control the technology.

Unfortunately, when the Pentagon announced that it would create a unique medal honoring the accomplishments of drone operators and other cyber warriors, fierce criticism caused a roll back of that initiative. There has been limited media coverage of UAV operators, but, so far, no drone-ace has emerged to become the 21st century Maverick.

Drones are here to stay. How Americans feel about them and about a new drone-based military remains a matter of debate, and that's a good thing in a democracy. But unmanned systems need rebranding so that the debate is more than an irrational channeling of Terminator.