Your Drone Cheat Sheet

Who are the key players? What are the big debates? And why do they freak so many people out?

Key Players

Ryan Calo: Calo is a University of Washington law professor who has argued that drones may help propel larger conversations about the juncture of technology and privacy.

Lisa Ellman: A former White House staffer, Ellman has pushed to open U.S. airspace to commercial drone flights.

Paul Misener: Amazon executive Misener has contributed to the company’s plans for delivery drones.*

Rand Paul: In 2013, the Republican senator from Kentucky carried out an almost 13-hour Senate filibuster warning against the possibility of domestic drone strikes.

Stephen Ross: Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, invested $1 million in the Drone Racing League, helping to legitimize the nascent sport.

Read Up:

Unmanned, by William M. Arkin: Focusing primarily on military drone technology, Arkin explores the ascendance of aerial surveillance systems and worries over the consequences of our reliance on them.

The Drone as Privacy Catalyst,” by M. Ryan Calo: In this Stanford Law Review article, Calo argues that widespread deployment of drones will help drive broader conversations around privacy.

Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones, by Eric Cheng: Cheng, himself an accomplished drone photographer, offers a thorough survey of both the state of the field and the potential of the medium.

Drones and Aerial Observation: A Primer: This comprehensive document from New America explores some of the ways that drones are being used in contemporary information collection. (New America is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

Wired for War, by P.W. Singer: New America’s Singer explores the ways that robotic technologies such as drones are changing the shape of global conflict.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Frequently Asked Questions,” Federal Aviation Administration: On this website, the FAA answers questions about drones and drone law ranging from the basic (“What is a drone?”) to the hyper-specific (“What is the B4UFLY APP?”).


Autonomous: Fully autonomous drone systems would be those that operate without human intervention or control.

Geofencing: Geofencing systems make it possible to restrict the range of some drones by creating geographic zones that they cannot enter.

Predator: Although they are only one of several systems currently under deployment, Predator drones are sometimes used as a catchall reference point for military drones.

UAV: Some drone advocates have advocated that civilian drones be referred to as UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles to distinguish them from military drones.

Unmanned: The defining feature of of drones, unmanned systems are those controlled remotely rather than by an onboard human pilot. Some advocate for the substitution of “unpiloted” or another less gendered term.

Pop Culture:

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: One of the superspies in this television series employs tiny drones in support of his team’s missions.

Drones,” Audi: This car commercial both parodies and plays into fears about a world overrun by domestic drones, suggesting that luxury automobiles may be our only escape.

Zero History, by William Gibson: This novel by the progenitor of cyberpunk features a set of surreal surveillance balloons designed to baffle observers.

Eye in the Sky, directed by Gavin Hood: A heated debate ensues when a child enters the area of a planned drone strike.

Futurama: Game of Drones: This mobile game playfully mocks Amazon’s drone delivery initiative, as well the whole cultural fascination with drones that surrounds it.

1984, by George Orwell: Though it precedes the rise of the modern drone, Orwell’s classic novel features flying cameras that look in on the private lives of citizens.


Detachment: Drones give us access to otherwise unimaginable vistas, but they may also be separating us from the world they reveal. Are drones yet another source of technological detachment?

Militarization: Military drone surveillance technologies have the potential to transform domestic policing, but at what cost? Do we risk literally bringing the war home? 

Nomenclature: Military and civilian drones couldn’t be more different from each other, but we use the same words to describe them, which may make it harder for the public to understand what’s at stake. Should we come up with new terms? Or is it time to accept the confusion and move on?

Privacy: Drones seem to make it easier than ever for civilians to spy in on one another—and for governments to surveil their citizens. Does the rise of drones signal the end of privacy as we know it?

Weaponization: Some hobbyists have attached firearms and other weapons to their drones. Should we worry that these capacities will be appropriated by terrorists and criminals?

Correction, May 2, 2016: Due to a photo provider error, a photograph in this post originally misidentified Brian Wynne as Paul Misener. It has been replaced with a photo of Misener. (Return.)

This article is part of the drone installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on drones:

Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To get the latest from Futurography in your inbox, sign up for the weekly Future Tense newsletter.

Photo of Paul Misener by Mark Wilson/Getty Images. Rand Paul photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images. Stephen Ross photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images. Lisa Ellman photo courtesy of Lisa Ellman. Ryan Calo Photo by University of Washington.