And the types of tools that can be attached to a UAV are growing beyond cameras and weapons. New equipment allows drones to hear gunshots, detect chemical levels, track RFID tags, and measure radiation.
The most controversial domestic use is by law enforcement agencies interested in using drones for surveillance and to fight crime, a prospect that has privacy advocates and other citizens on edge. According to Gielow, only three law-enforcement agencies currently have approval to fly drones in the U.S.: The Mesa County Sheriffs office in Colorado, the Grand Forks sheriff department in North Dakota, and the Arlington Police Department in Texas.
Privacy advocates fear the drones could be used for surveillance of anyone. The UAVs track people with the same advanced software being used in regular surveillance cameras.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been pushing the FAA to release details on all the public-safety agencies, military and security organizations and other groups that have been given permits to fly drones in U.S. airspace. The civil liberties group has even plotted all the known drone programs on an interactive map.
People in the drone industry don't think a blanket ban on UAVs is the answer to privacy concerns.
"The issue should not be focused on how you take that picture," said Gielow. "You can get the same thing from a manned helicopter, satellite, security camera or smartphone."
Instead, Gielow thinks people should focus on how the government uses and stores images of citizens, not the tools used to capture them.
A booming industry
Many other government agencies are already testing out drones. NASA is using them to monitor hurricanes, NOAA employs them in the Arctic to monitor wildlife and the USGS is using them for mapping and environmental studies.
While public safety and the military get the most attention for drone use, the biggest market for UAVs will actually be agriculture, according to the AUVSI. Up to 80 percent of drones will be used on farms, where they will track cattle, check on the health and hydration of crops, and even dispense pesticides.
The UAV industry is set to break open in the coming year. According to the AUVSI, the drone industry will create 70,000 jobs and have an economic impact of $13.6 billion in its first three years once the FAA establishes regulations.
Meanwhile, the aerospace industry is getting ready for the potentially lucrative drone age. Twenty-six states, including Oklahoma, are currently competing for six coveted FAA contracts for UAV test sites that will be used to collect more information about how to regulate the technology. The winning states will be announced later this year.
Silicon Valley also is paying attention. Earlier this month, a startup called Airware that's developed an open operating system for UAVs raised $10.7 million in investment funding. Most of Airware's customers are in countries like Japan and France, where the technology is more wildly used.