• Time

The Drone Age has arrived


Members of the Intel Shooting Star team test a few of their drones before a cover animation attempt on May 3, 2018 in Folsom, Calif. Jake Stangel for TIME

Drones Are Here to Stay. Get Used to It

With any technology, there are certain inflection points when it goes from being something perpetually in the near future to being a part of everyday life. For years, drones have been hovering on the cusp—used by militaries and relatively small numbers of hobbyists but not part of the larger culture. The U.S. military ushered in the drone age in 2001, when it began using the unmanned, remotely piloted technology to target al-Qaeda leaders in the wilds of Afghanistan. Drones have since become a key part of the military’s arsenal, and their use in conflict zones around the world has expanded under both the Obama and Trump Administrations. Civilian uses, however, have long been more promise than reality.

That’s finally changing. Some 3 million drones were sold worldwide in 2017, and more than 1 million drones are registered for U.S. use with the Federal Aviation Administration. (Most store-bought drones have to be registered with the FAA.) These consumer drones can fly vertically, like helicopters, and are similar to remote-controlled airplanes but with more sophisticated technology such as GPS, wi-fi and obstacle-avoidance sensors. They’re being used by tech-savvy farmers to monitor and spray crops, by researchers to measure environmental pollution and by Hollywood studios to capture action-packed footage for blockbuster movies. Drones are even saving lives, as first responders in places like Menlo Park, Calif., use them to coordinate operations and search for missing hikers. (Sixty-five people have been rescued by drones, by one estimate.) And of course, drones are being flown by hundreds of thousands of amateurs, who use them for everything from taking vacation photos to buzzing around their local park.

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