WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the high-testosterone world of U.S. military jets and aerial dogfights, the names “drone” and “unmanned aerial vehicle” just don’t fly.
The Air Force now prefers to use “remotely piloted aircraft” when discussing its fast-growing fleet of planes that do not have a pilot in the cockpit.
And the thing about an “unmanned aerial vehicle” is that it is not unmanned, said U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, speaking at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington this week.
The new term better reflects the presence of a human operator, who sits at a computer control panel thousands of miles away. The old term is wrong, he said.
“I think it mischaracterizes how the aircraft are operated,” Donley said. “So I think ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ captures it a little bit better.”
The change is significant to the Air Force as it recruits a new generation of pilots who may spend little time inside a jet plane. It wants the world to know that humans have “positive control over these vehicles,” he said.
The United States and countries around the world have used remotely piloted aircraft for decades as weapons and for reconnaissance. Last week marked the public debut of the newest unmanned plane built by Lockheed Martin (LMT.N), the RQ-170, known in some circles as the “Beast of Kandahar.”
Donley said the push for a new reference to the aircraft has been under way for several years.
“We have discussed this among the Air Force leadership, and it is really sort of a commitment that we make together,” he said. “It just kind of changes ... the way the Air Force is represented in print.”
Rockwell Collins (COL.N) Chief Executive Clay Jones, who flew an F-15 in the 1970s, acknowledged that military technology is changing the traditional role of a pilot. But he said human pilots are in no danger of becoming extinct.
“I think a human will always be in the loop on certain aircraft,” Jones told the Reuters summit. “There is a clear opportunity for both types of systems to exist.”
At the same time, he could not resist bragging about a Rockwell project to develop a holographic cockpit display mounted inside the visor and helmet of pilots who fly Lockheed Martin’s new F-35 jet.
“This is very, very cool,” he said. “It’s real Buck Rogers stuff.”
Editing by Steve Orlofsky