No one knows exactly how many personal drones are buzzing through our skies, but Chris Anderson, the longtime editor of Wired magazine who now heads a drone manufacturer called 3D Robotics, estimates that at least 500,000 have been sold in the United States alone.
Though drones are fun to fly, the autopilot feature on newer models frees you up to, say, cheer at your kid’s soccer game while the drone records it from the air. On the horizon is facial-recognition software that will let drone users film themselves while catching a wave on a surfboard or navigating a mountain chute on skis. And although the Federal Aviation Administration maintains that flying drones for commercial purposes won’t be legal until next year at the earliest, drones have already proved useful in agriculture, search and rescue, architecture, and other fields. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, drones could generate more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in their first decade of legal commercial use.
We’ll see. The skeptics have plenty of ammunition, including serious concerns about safety—last year, a drone fell out of the sky onto a busy sidewalk in Manhattan, narrowly missing a man walking home from work, and current models aren’t equipped to avoid one another in flight.
But to drone enthusiasts—many of whom are clustered in San Diego, which has a large military-drone industry—these are just problems awaiting a technological solution. Drone manufacturing is an example of what Anderson has termed the “maker movement”: citizen inventors developing new technologies that once would have come only out of big corporations’ R&D departments. Many of these makers see a future in which drones could prove as transformational—and as popular—as the personal computer. “In developed countries, I think it will be one drone per person,” says Jordi Muñoz, Anderson’s business partner. “It’s going to reach everyone.”