Look up into America’s skies today and you might just see one of these drones: small, fully autonomous, and dirt-cheap. On any given weekend, someone’s probably flying a real-life drone not far from your own personal airspace. (They’re the ones looking at their laptops instead of their planes.) These personal drones can do everything that military drones can, aside from blow up stuff. Although they technically aren’t supposed to be used commercially in the US (they also must stay below 400 feet, within visual line of sight, and away from populated areas and airports), the FAA is planning to officially allow commercial use starting in 2015.
What are all these amateurs doing with their drones? Like the early personal computers, the main use at this point is experimentation—simple, geeky fun. But as personal drones become more sophisticated and reliable, practical applications are emerging. The film industry is already full of remotely piloted copters serving as camera platforms, with a longer reach than booms as well as cheaper and safer operations than manned helicopters. Some farmers now use drones for crop management, creating aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution. And there are countless scientific uses for drones, from watching algal blooms in the ocean to low-altitude measurement of the solar reflectivity of the Amazon rain forest. Others are using the craft for wildlife management, tracking endangered species and quietly mapping out nesting areas that are in need of protection.