Here is one sign of the huge potential of drones: The University of North Dakota recently began offering an undergraduate major in unmanned aircraft systems operations.
For now, most graduates end up in jobs that support the military, but program head Ben Trapnell predicts that civilian uses will eventually far outpace those for defense.
An unmanned plane could fly over a field and send back pictures to show where pests are located or where crops need irrigation.
"Some of the big things [are] agricultural uses," said Trapnell. "We can get imagery to farmers a lot faster than having to wait for satellites to do the same thing." For instance, an unmanned plane could fly over a field and send back pictures to show where pests are located or where crops need irrigation.
Trapnell also foresees medical applications. "There's the possibility of flying organs from one place to another to get them there faster for transplants," he said. Drones may also be used to parachute medical supplies in remote locations, where planes can't land.
Utility companies could benefit from drones. Trapnell predicts they will one day patrol pipelines and power lines to monitor for problems. Small helicopter drones may fly close to wind turbines to make video inspections.