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How Drones Work

        Science | Modern

 ©Chris McGrath/Getty Images
©Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In this brave new digital world, the word "drone" has taken on some seriously ominous overtones. Mass media portrays drones as cold-blooded mechanizations silently soaring the skies in search of unsuspecting human targets. The general public sees surveillance drones as creepy reminders that someone, somewhere is watching every little thing you do. Drones are indeed powerful weapons and spy tools. But they're also much more.

Although "drone" is the most common term, these flying machines are also often called UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Although government and military agencies were among the first to explore drones for their warfare capabilities, these winged devices are now also marketed to kids, teenagers, RC plane hobbyists, photographers, videographers, farmers and just about anyone who can benefit from a viewpoint in the skies around them.

Military-grade drones may fit in a backpack, or they may be nearly as big as a full-size plane and loaded with death-dealing armaments. These drones can cost tens of millions of dollars and have wingspans of more than 100 feet (30 meters).

Although military drones are promoted to the public as bloodless and precise types of war machines, they can be disturbingly deadly. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that in Pakistan alone, the United States executed more than 400 drone attacks that killed as many as 4,000 people, of which perhaps 1,000 were civilians and 200 were children.

Consumer and commercial drones offer a happier spin on automated flight. They may actually fit in your palm and run you less than $100. Sturdier, more advanced models can cost thousands and scream high into the sky (and possibly onto local radar), which may very well land you in trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Small drones operated by commercial enterprises are growing in number. Those businesses will benefit in amazing and as-of-yet unforeseen ways, using drones to boost revenue and help economies all over the globe.

Fire departments, police units and disaster responders all use drones to some degree, assessing harrowing situations, finding missing people and helping fellow humans. Drones are handy for construction, mapping, wildlife conservation, pipeline inspection and much more.

Drones are also just plain fun. We humans can't sprout wings and fly, but we can do a little vicarious living through our winged friends, lofting cameras for amazing images or just zooming around the heavens for the joy of it.

Drones, Part 2: Domestic Use | CLASSIC