Origin of the Drone

Word meanings  can have fascinating histories.  For example, the heavily armored vehicle was named a “tank” to disguise its true purpose.  There are oil tanks, water tanks, etc, so who would expect one that moves and shoots back?

Here’s a more contemporary example.  Why are unmanned aircraft called drones?

I found one explanation in the “Verbal Energy” column by Ruth Walker in the November 9, 2015 issue of the Christian Science Monitor.  In this excerpt, Ruth explains:

In the 1930s, a time of great technical advancement in attack aircraft, the British Royal Navy wanted to test its air defenses. Hundreds of old de Havilland biplanes were rigged up with remote controls for Navy gunners to practice shooting at. But in fact the Queen Bees, as these aircraft were known, served to identify holes in British air defenses.

A visiting American admiral saw a Bee in action and decided the United States needed something like it. And so when Delmer Fahrney, the officer put in charge of the American effort, came up with the US Navy’s first unmanned aircraft, he called it a drone “in homage to the Queen Bee,” historian Steven Zaloga has written. Ben Zimmer noted in a Wall Street Journal piece a couple of years ago, “The term fit, as a drone could only function when controlled by an operator on the ground or in a ‘mother’ plane.”

That does make sense.

You can read the full column here:  http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Verbal-Energy/2015/1105/Droning-on-about-those-things-in-the-sky

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