Why is this drone toy controversial?

Maisto Fresh Metal Tailwinds 1:97 Scale Die Cast United States Military Aircraft - US Air Force Medium Altitude, Long Endurance, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) RQ-1 Predator with Display Stand
Mais­to Fresh Met­al Tail­winds 1:97 Scale Die Cast Unit­ed States Mil­i­tary Air­craft — US Air Force Medi­um Alti­tude, Long Endurance, Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle (UAV) RQ‑1 Preda­tor with Dis­play Stand

At Slate, Ryan Gal­lagher reports that this drone toy, pic­tured above, is con­tro­ver­sial and (gasp!) actu­al­ly sold out. The piv­ot, nat­u­ral­ly, was a fair­ly expect­ed anti-drone piece from Conor Frieder­s­dorf, who praised some of the “punk” reviews on Ama­zon’s prod­uct page as evi­dence that there’s some secret dis­si­dent alt-his­to­ry of the drone being writ­ten online.


But hon­est­ly, why on earth is this con­tro­ver­sial? As Gal­lagher notes, this same com­pa­ny also sells toys for mil­i­tary fight­er air­craft, attack heli­copters, and mul­ti­role fight­er jets.

Shock­ing­ly, kids love play­ing with toys that repli­cate mil­i­tary func­tions. But much more impor­tant­ly: the “con­tro­ver­sy” over this toy is mis­placed and more than a bit ridicu­lous. Those oth­er toys the com­pa­ny sells rep­re­sent weapons plat­forms that have killed far more peo­ple than all the drones in all the world… but those don’t prompt out­cry when they’re sold for the delight of chil­dren.

The dis­par­i­ty in out­rage is because much of the anti-drone hype is due to either igno­rance or (in a few rare cas­es) out­right mis­in­for­ma­tion.

This mod­el of toy is a recon­nais­sance air­craft. That’s what the “R” stands for in RQ‑1. When Preda­tor drones were first invent­ed, they could­n’t car­ry weapons — they were designed sim­ply to loi­ter for long peri­ods of time over an area and film what­ev­er they could find (and in fact that’s still what they do, prompt­ing some drone crit­ics to com­plain they make peo­ple into “vic­tims of sur­veil­lance” when one flies over­head).

So the oppro­bri­um about vio­lence levied at a toy for a what amounts to a fly­ing web­cam is not just weird and mis­fo­cused (con­sid­er­ing the oth­er mil­i­tary toys this com­pa­ny sells that have killed far more peo­ple) — it is based on an incor­rect con­clu­sion about it is to begin with. These com­menters (and Conor Frieder­s­dorf) might as well wail and moan about U‑2 spy planes, since the two air­craft per­form sim­i­lar func­tions.

The Great Drone Pan­ic has its roots in a legit­i­mate and press­ing con­cern about the pres­i­den­tial author­i­ty to sum­mar­i­ly kill peo­ple with­out judi­cial review. But it has metas­ta­sized into some­thing bizarre, based on lit­tle more than strong feel­ings com­plete­ly unroot­ed in any facts.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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