The Past and Future of Drones in the U.S.

Americans have a long love affair with aviation, so why should unmanned aviation be any different? Truth is, it probably won’t be, as tens of thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, will launch into the skies over the U.S. in the next couple of decades. What’s our history with drones, how are they being used, what’s to come, and what are some of the legal issues with expanding the use of civilian drones?


A Brief History

You might think drones are something new, but the reality is unmanned aerial vehicles have a long history. Here’s a quick look at how they’ve been used in and for the U.S.: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Featured Schools


During the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces launch balloons loaded with explosives, intending for them to come down inside supply or ammo depots and explode.


A World War II project named Operation Aphrodite aims to use unmanned bombers to deliver devastation to selected targets. The plan was for a crew to take a stripped-down bomber into the air and then bail out after transferring controls to a radio control set in a trailing aircraft. The plane would then be guided down into a low altitude, striking its target — all using radio control. Several tests never yielded a consistent success.


North Vietnam sees large numbers of Firebee drones dispatched to conduct reconnaissance missions, take night photos, drop leaflets and detect surface-to-air missiles. All told, the drones were dispatched more than 3,400 times during the Vietnam War.


The U.S. Navy launches the Pioneer UAV program; drones have been used in a variety of countries, including the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Somalia.


A group of Iraqi soldiers surrenders to an unmanned vehicle during the Gulf War.
Late 1990s

U.S. Air Force begins working on ways to equip drones with weapons.


The CIA begins flying unarmed UAVs over Afghanistan.


A Predator drone is used in a targeted killing in Afghanistan, the first such attack by the CIA.


An unmanned UAV in Washington state helps police locate a man accused of raping a child.


U.S. sales of non-military drones are projected to reach $8.2 billion in the next decade.


Legislation restricting civilian drone use has been proposed in 43 states.

How Drones Are Being Used

A Supreme Court ruling in the 1980s found that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t necessarily prohibit the government from carrying out aerial surveillance, even without a warrant. As technology continues to improve, there’s little doubt you can expect to see more UAVs in the skies over the U.S. (6)

What they’re used for: (7)

  • Weather detection
  • 3D mapping
  • Monitoring wildlife
  • Farming
  • Search and rescue
  • Law enforcement

How They Might Be Used in the Future

As the cost of drones becomes cheaper thanks to the same kinds of innovations that make smartphones increasingly small, domestic drone uses will continue to expand. Here’s a look at likely technology drones will have in the coming years: (6)

  • Night vision
  • High-powered zoom
  • See-through imaging
  • Video analysis

With those advancements should come discussions over privacy. Here are a few of the areas of concern: (6)

  • Mission creep
  • Tracking
  • Discriminatory targeting
  • Institutional abuse
  • Automated law enforcement


Estimated number of drones operating in U.S. by 2030 (8)



Top Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs

Find A Degree