Drones, Commercial Applications of

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), drones are aircraft that are either controlled wirelessly by pilots from the ground or pre-programmed to fly autonomously. They can carry cameras, sensors, and other devices, integrating radio control, wireless communications, and internal navigation technologies, which enable them to be used for surveillance of various kinds in the public and private sectors. Developed and conceived originally for the military and law enforcement, drones are currently expanding into the commercial industry as well as civilian and public safety sectors. This entry focuses on the commercial application and possible uses of drones—with discussions on UAVs’ capabilities; regulations concerning their federal, commercial, and private use; and potential violations of privacy through the use of drones for surveillance.

Application and Uses

Drones vary in terms of size, and technological and aerial capabilities. In terms of size, drones are currently classified into four main categories: strategic, tactical, micro, and mini. Strategic drones are currently used only by the military, both in foreign operations and to secure internal border areas, as they can reach altitudes of 20,000 meters. Tactical drones are mainly deployed in security contexts and by public bodies, primarily by the police in law enforcement operations. Micro and mini drones are the types currently being used by the private sector, as they are more suitable for low-altitude flights in populated areas.

Drones can collect a broad range of data from multiple aerial vantage points, introducing new data visualization capabilities with multiple uses in the private sector. The commercial applications of drones seem endless, and they will likely increase with the development of new technologies. Currently, the surveillance technologies most often mounted on UAV devices are high-power zoom lenses, thermal imaging, light detection and ranging, radar technologies, video analytics technology, distributed networked surveillance, and facial recognition or other biometric recognition to identify height, age, gender, or skin color.

The Teal Group Corporation, a group of aerospace and defense industry analysts, considers the global market for drones to be “the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry” and estimates that worldwide UAV spending will almost double to US$11.5 billion by 2024. Specifically, drones are also currently in use in search-and-rescue operations, tracking and monitoring of animal populations, real estate, crime scene and highway accident imagery, aerial archeology, monitoring of environmental change and abuse, advertising, celebrity spotting, film and television production, assessing of otherwise inaccessible areas, observing of crowd behavior in major events, and monitoring of power lines, forest fires, and crop health. Individuals are increasingly using drones for recreational purposes, such as photography and activism.

In such a diverse and evolving market, the commercial applications of drones are difficult to categorize. Some of the broad categories that emerge are commercial aerial surveillance (which can be used in filmmaking, advertising, aerial archeology, sports photography, geophysical and geomagnetic surveys), disaster relief and conservation (search-and-rescue, transporting and receiving samples and medicines, diagnosis of a crisis situation, accessing difficult areas, fire detection), training (of human pilots and operators, or in any other field), and scientific research.


The legality of UAVs, however, is still an open debate. Amazon’s announcement of its plan to deliver products using micro and mini drones was met with different arguments pointing to the many obstacles such development would face, the first and foremost being federal and state regulatory approval. As noted earlier, in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration, acting on a mandate from the U.S. Congress, issued regulations in 2016 regarding commercial drones in U.S. airspace. News that the U.S. military has seen more than 400 of its drones crash in accidents around the world since 2001 and the National Park Service’s 2014 policy to prohibit UAVs on the grounds of noise and nuisance are matters to take into account.

In most countries, governments have issued only general guidelines for the use of UAVs, and while comprehensive regulations are being discussed, countries such as Spain have banned the use of commercial drones altogether until such regulations come into effect. In other countries, such as Mexico and Brazil, drones are used by the public and private sectors with no regulations or plans for regulations whatsoever.

Privacy Concerns and Other Challenges

Aviation regulations are likely to address only some of the problems arising from the proliferation of drones. Matters related to public safety, reliability, individual privacy, operator training and certification, security, traffic control, theft, societal acceptability, and other logistical challenges need to be addressed by legislation spanning beyond the competences of civil aviation agencies. In Australia alone, privately owned drones have made headlines after crashing into infrastructure or people on at least two occasions, in 2013 and 2014. On a different note, the U.S.-based paparazzi agency AKM-GSI admitted to capturing drone videos of celebrity homes and selling them as an established practice. While this practice is not that much different from traditional celebrity-spotting techniques, the use of drones to capture images of private areas or persons brings to light the lack of privacy and protection for the subject, who is often unaware of such practices or, if made aware of them, unable to exercise his or her privacy rights.

The promise of a broad market for UAVs is prompting investment in commercial drones in many different sectors and countries. However, the drive for drone development seems to be obscuring current challenges linked to data management, the security and privacy of the devices, their compliance with existing regulations, and respect for fundamental rights, such as privacy rights.

Gemma Galdon Clavell

See also Airport Security ; Border Patrol Checkpoints ; Dataveillance ; Identity Politics .

Further Readings

Adey, Peter. Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilites, Affects. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Bracken-Roche, Chiara, et al. Surveillance Drones: Privacy Implications of the Spread of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Canada. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: Surveillance Studies Center, 2014.

Cavoukian, Anne. Privacy and Drones: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Information and Privacy Commissioner). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Privacy by Design, 2012. http://www.ipc.on.ca/wp-content/uploads/Resources/pbd-drones.pdf (Accessed October 2017).

Finn, Rachel L. and David Wright. “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Surveillance, Ethics and Privacy in Civil Application.” Computer Law and Security Review, v.28 (2012).

Teal Group Corporation.“Teal Group Predicts Worldwide UAV Market Will Total $91 Billion in Its 2014 UAV Market Profile and Forecast” (July 17, 2014). http://www.tealgroup.com/index.php/about-teal-group-corporation/press-releases/118-2014-uav-press-release (Accessed October 2017).