We’ve all heard of drone use in the military. But did you know that drones are being used by a wide variety of individuals and organizations right here at home every day… and that they’ll have expanded commercial uses in the near future?

Currently, the FAA has a ban on the commercial use of drones, although it does make exceptions for hobbyists where the drone stays in sight of the human operator. Over the past several years, a growing number of people and organizations have found a way to get around that FAA ban on commercial use by setting up a not-for-profit or by classifying themselves as hobbyists. This way they can operate their drones in a non-commercial way and collect payments as donations. So far, the FAA has not cracked down on this practice.  

So how are drones currently being used?

Aside from the military, real estate agents, especially those selling high-end homes, use drones to fly over their listed properties and capture aerial footage of the grounds and surroundings. Likewise, professional photographers use them to capture unique photographs that would be hard to get by walking. We also have film and motion picture companies using drones for aerial footage, because drones are quieter and don’t vibrate as much as helicopters.

In agriculture, farmers who have very large operations but not a lot of workers use drones to fly over their acreage and look for crop or irrigation problems, or even to count cattle. In this case, the drones have proven to be a valuable tool for farm surveillance and maintenance.

Finally, the police use drones to track down criminals and even for search and rescue missions. They’re a cost-effective alternative to manned helicopters.

On December 30, 2013, the FAA announced six states (Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia) that will be allowed to develop test sites for drones. Because each has a different climate, terrain, and airspace, the FAA sees this as a critical way to gather the information it will need to establish future rules regulating drones. It will also spur innovation as well as needed jobs in these areas.

When the FAA re-evaluates the rules on the commercial use of drones in 2015, even after a lot of testing at these new sites, don’t expect an “anything goes” policy. In 2013, 42 states considered bills restricting drone use due to privacy issues. Eight of them actually passed laws and more are expected to follow.

Since drones have cameras, they could easily invade someone’s privacy or be used with malicious intent, such as criminals staking out a home to rob. Additionally, one or two drones in rural areas aren’t likely to cause many safety issues, but imagine if Amazon and other large retailers such as Walmart and Sears used drones for delivery, as Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos recently suggested. There could be hundreds of drones flying overhead in your neighborhood. The chances of a drone hitting a person, animal, or building would increase significantly—not to mention the noise of all those motors overhead.

While the FAA will likely permit the military, police, emergency personnel, farmers, and hobbyists to continue to use drones, allowing them in other commercial ventures, such as real estate, motion picture, photography, and business logistics (as Bezos envisions) under any circumstance will be a tough sell. So while drones will always be a part of life in the future, they may not be as prevalent as some people like to think.

Let’s use this blog as a starting point for dialogue regarding the commercial use of drones. What do you think the uses and limitations should be?