There is little doubt that drones are a groundbreaking military technology

Their advantages over traditional aircraft are well known: they allow for the execution of surveillance and strike operations without risking the life of pilots. Unlike traditional airborne surveillance, which relies on high-altitude aircraft taking photos from miles above, drones can circle above a target for hours while simultaneously relaying a live feed back to their operators. And, if armed, they can destroy a target with near-perfect accuracy.

From the perspective of a military, there are few tools as promising as drones. Never before has a technology combined the operational capabilities of a bomber, the ground strike precision of a fighter aircraft, and the surveillance abilities of a satellite. But drones are as widely criticized as they are praised—in the United States military, drones are a tool that are treated as a policy. They are used to conduct targeted killings (assassinations!) of targets whose fates should be decided in international court, or at least military tribunal. And while drones may offer physical precision, the strikes have shockingly high civilian casualty rates (according to The Intercept, only 10% of those killed in drone strikes are the intended target).

In Afghanistan alone, the United States has carried out over 1,300 drone strikes since 2004, leading to the deaths of over 3,000 people—civilians and children among them. According to leaked government documents, only 2% of those killed in drone strikes in 2014 were the intended target.

Not all drones are created equal.

It is important to distinguish between the various different types of unmanned aircraft. The term 'drone' has grown to encompass all unmanned flying aircrafts, whether under military—or civilian—use. And while some drones carry Hellfire missiles and conduct airstrikes, the primary use of drones in the military is surveillance. And in the civilian world, drones are used primarily by hobbyists looking to capture video footage from the sky that would otherwise be inaccessible. These hobbyist drones are not armed and hold little value to a terrorist, whether to conduct surveillance or deliver a bomb. There has yet to be an instance of drones being used to injure others (at least intentionally). Still, the word 'drone' is used to refer to all of these aircraft, and this has led to widespread confusion on what drones themselves are.

Civilian Drones

There is no single type of civilian drone. Some drones, like the popular Phantom 3, would be more aptly named as quadcopters, while others, such as the Parrot AR Drone, more closely resemble traditional model aircraft. Some higher-end drones are used in the film industry in lieu of cranes to capture airborne shots, and some are inevitably used by 'peeping toms' to invade the personal privacy of others. Despite the clear differences of size, noise, thrust, and equipment between many of these drones, there are a few common threads which render them nearly harmless (with proper regulation).

A "Phantom" drone

A 'Phantom 3' consumer drone with a camera attached. The Phantom is a popular consumer drone, most often used for aerial photography and videography. It is a staple in Apple Stores in the United States.

Civilian drones aren't armed.

While this may seem obvious, civilian drone critics often argue that drones could be retrofitted with explosives and used to conduct a terrorist attack from afar. These concerns are largely unfounded, however, as most civilian drones do not have the thrust required to remain airborne when carrying a bomb. Plus, the few drones that would be capable of carrying a bomb are already subject to extreme regulation.

They can't fly far, either.

Most civilian drones connect to their controller via Bluetooth, WiFi, or UHF radio. As a result, their range is limited, often only up to 100 feet. This hinders their effectiveness as a tool for terrorism, as an assailant would need to be within close proximity to their target. Civilian drone signals are also easy to block, making existing counterterrorism tools very effective in grounding potential threats.

Not all drone misuses stem from terrorism, however. A 'peeping tom' could use a drone equipped with a camera to invade the personal privacy of those around him. Such behavior has been documented, and has led to widespread reforms in civilian drone usage.

Drones are loud.

They are hardly the covert aircraft that they are often made out to be. The Phantom 3, a small consumer drone that is quieter than most, has roughly 70 dB of noise 15 feet away—and drones only become louder as they grow larger.

A large professional drone

A large drone carries a camera.

Most of the threats from civilian drone usage stem from negligent operators.

Much more likely than any of the previous scenarios is that a drone operator, possibly untrained or reckless, flies a drone into a power line or someone else's personal property. They would do so mostly at their own loss, however: in order to fly, drones are very light. As a result, most consumer drones would cause little damage to any object they collide with, inflicting most of the damage on themselves.

Drones have yet to be used in a terrorist attack, and with good reason.

The drones that are most available to consumers (and possible terrorists) are unable to carry a bomb or any other additional payload, and they cannot be operated from afar. Drones with increased range or higher thrust are extraordinarily expensive, and as a result largely out of reach for a rogue attacker—and that's ignoring the fact that the TSA already requires pilot vetting for drones weighing more than 55 lbs (a category which includes almost all drones capable of carrying a bomb).

So, what are civilian drones used for?

Civilian drones are primarily used for the following purposes.

  • Research. Drones allow geologists, oceanographers, and cartographers to position their cameras and sensors in locations that were previously impossible.
  • Film. Before drones, helicopters or large cranes were required to capture aerial shots. Drones provide filmmakers an affordable, safe, and more flexible alternative.
  • Hobbyists. Drones are incredibly fun to fly, and if flown properly, pose no harm to those around.
  • Delivery. Amazon has announced that they are developing a fleet of drones that will be used to deliver packages.
  • Agriculture. Drones are becoming an increasingly popular tool among farmers to efficiently survey and deliver pesticides to their crops.

Still, regulation is important.

While drones have incredible promise in the civilian realm, they still pose a direct threat to personal privacy. As a result, regulation must be in place to prevent drones becoming a ubiquitous tool of surveillance. Drones could very quickly become an Orwellian tool used by intelligence agencies and police departments worldwide to expand suspicionless, mass surveillance from cyberspace into the sky.