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Drone Pilots


One might think that unmanned combat aircraft are an invention of the last 50 years, but they have been around since July 1849, when the Austrians launched approximately 200 pilotless balloons mounted with bombs to attack the city of Venice. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, U.S. military intelligence officers fitted a camera to a kite, which took some of the first aerial reconnaissance photos. Also in 1898, the inventor Nicola Tesla was granted a U.S. patent for a “Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles,” which covered “any type of vessel or vehicle which is capable of being propelled and directed, such as a boat, a balloon, or a carriage.” He later wowed attendees at a trade show by using the technology described in the patent to power an unmanned ship in a tank of water.  

Unmanned aircraft systems have been used by the U.S. military and spy agencies from the time of the Spanish-American War, through World Wars I and II, to more recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. It’s estimated that the U.S. military and intelligence community has approximately 11,000 drones.

In 1987, the Yamaha Motor Company began producing an unmanned helicopter for crop dusting purposes in Japan. Interest in the helicopter was slow to “take off,” but the usage of drones in agriculture was gradually embraced. Today, there are approximately 3,200 agricultural drones in Japan. 

In the United States, radio-controlled airplanes were first developed by hobbyists in the 1930s. The sport remains a popular pastime. In 2000, the Parrot AR Drone, a smartphone-controlled quadcopter for consumers, was introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show. Drones quickly became popular with hobbyists and law enforcement agencies, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricted the use of drones for commercial purposes, with a few exceptions (including agriculture).

In August 2016, the FAA released new rules that allowed for the widespread use of small unmanned aircraft systems (those under 55 pounds) for commercial purposes. This has created strong job growth in the industry. Commercial drones may be flown only during daylight hours (and in good weather), up to 400 feet above the ground, and remain in the visual line of sight of the pilot (although the FAA makes exceptions on a case-by-case basis). Drone pilots must also make sure that their drones yield the right of way to planes and helicopters. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems estimates that more than 100,000 drone-related jobs will be created in the United States through 2025 with an economic impact of more than $82 billion.

As of mid-2017, 8 percent of Americans owned a drone, according to the Pew Research Center. Drone ownership was much higher (12 percent) among those ages 18 to 49 compared with those who were 50 and older (4 percent).