Drones are the stuff of dystopian nightmares. They're used for surveillance at home and abroad, raising privacy issues everywhere. They can carry weapons and can kill people from thousands of miles away while the operator sips coffee in a temperature-controlled office.
Yet drones are a dream come true for many commercial enterprises. Farmers can better monitor fields and livestock. Construction engineers can much more easily see their projects from every angle. Drones can offer new perspectives on real estate, move cargo and deliver packages.
By one estimate, drone technology could create more than 100,000 jobs in the next decade. And they could boost the economy by billions and billions of dollars as they spill into sectors of engineering, computer science, commercial contracting, videography, forestry and, of course, the military [source: Whitlock]. All of these disciplines will require experts in fabricating and flying drones — and commercial drone pilots could start with an annual salary of $50,000 to more than $100,000, working for manufacturers, surveyors, law enforcement or any number of other organizations.
Colleges, such as the University of North Dakota, are increasingly offering degrees for piloting drones in anticipation of the drone explosion. Students train on simulators as they build up their flight hours, but in many cases they can't fly actual drones as part of their coursework. That's because before drones can truly take flight, they'll have to surmount legal and regulatory hurdles. At present, the FAA limits what drones can do in American airspace, even if you're practicing through a college program.
Hobbyists must keep their machines flying lower than 400 feet (122 meters) and at least 5 miles (8 kilometers) from airports to prevent conflicts with manned aircraft. In spite of those rules, the FAA has documented dozens of near misses from people who violate regulations, and any of those instances could have potentially caused serious damage to an airplane and endangered lived. Those kinds of problems complicate the government's ability to integrate commercial drone usage on a larger scale.
Still, Congress has directed the FAA to find ways to regulate drones, particularly commercial drones, in ways that will help harness these technologies for the economy. Because of the large scale of drones' likely impact on our society (and because we're talking about a federal bureaucracy) you can bet that it will be a few years before drones really take off commercially across the country.
In the meantime, drone technology continues to evolve much more quickly than any single organization can track. Hobbyist drones are getting cheaper and more capable by the month, and more and more manned military craft are being replaced by enormous, powerful and deadly drones that can scour the skies far longer than any traditional craft.
If you were waiting for the day of the drones to arrive, realize this — that day has already come. Drones, for good or bad, will be a part of our culture for many years to come.