The formal term is unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Some even go the extra mile and say it's Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment.
But you can just call it a drone.
Now, when you think of drones, you may imagine one of those funny four-propeller flat things that people fly around their yards and take selfies with.
Or perhaps the word makes you think of a military drone, speeding over enemy territory to take reconnaissance pictures.
But that's not all they're used for anymore.
These days, even the simplest version of a drone can be used for something more than just pictures.
And there are certainly less-than-simple ones on the market right now.
Despite the concerns about safety and privacy, the possible uses of drones are being expanded every day.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's Section 333 allows drones to be used for commercial purposes and be flown near populated areas, which regularly certified UAVs can't do. In 2016, the FAA further reduced restrictions by allowing drones to be piloted without a pilot's license, though they still suggest new fliers be accompanied by someone with a license.
Some attribute the quick adoption of drone technology to its very nature.
After all, drones operate in the air, inherently out of the way — as long as they stay in flight.
Plus, the controls of most drones are simpler than much of the machinery they're replacing, making safety training for operation much quicker.
One PwC research report claimed that the market for commercial drones could be as much as $127 billion by 2020.
And that's a chunk of change I'm sure you'll want to get in on.
So let's take a look at some of the popular uses for UAV tech today.
Building From the Sky Down
One of the most common uses for drone technology is the monitoring and maintenance of buildings.
In some cases, it's for real estate purposes.
Home-buyers can use drones to see the areas of a potential house that can't be reached by people, such as the roof or balcony of a higher floor.
Some real estate companies use the drones themselves, and advertise using drone-caught pictures of the property.
Meares Auction Group takes it a step further, offering full video tours of the houses. One video even includes a view of a property's long driveway to give potential buyers a full, virtual experience.
A report by The Future Laboratory, a research and consultancy group, claims that it will be commonplace to explore the outsides of potential homes via drone by 2025, not only for the look of the house, but for environmental things like nighttime noise levels. PwC also notes that using drones for such surveillance operations could be nearly 75% faster than traditional boots-on-the-ground surveillance.
In England, UAVs are also being used to survey land for homes being remodeled or built onto.
Owners submitting planning applications can have their property looked over for approval via drone rather than having people actually in and around the house.
Of course, this ease of access has become very handy not only in homes, but in bigger buildings as well, from multi-story buildings to rustic castles.
In both cases, drones can be easily dispatched to assess damage from weather, or just daily wear and tear. UAVs are cheaper and safer than sending a human being up high to do the same work.
Co-founder of one chimney and venting company called SirVent states, “We started using them in dangerous or difficult situations where you can't get a person very easily.”
And the situations drones get into could be a lot more dangerous than a dirty chimney.
Consider the use of drones in the energy markets alone: drill maintenance, oil spills, gas leaks, and downed power lines are just a few of the things that can be monitored — and maybe one day, controlled — by UAVs instead of human beings.
Already, companies like Rotor Air Cam are working on drones with the ability to detect gas leaks as they're happening.
Recent deactivation of nuclear facilities all over the world has also prompted further drone use: by attaching a radiation scanner to a drone, workers can send the machine into the cell of a nuclear reactor to map out the most dangerous areas and pieces of equipment.
In the future, drones may put even more distance between human workers and harmful radiation.
However, the biggest call for drones in energy will be in the infrastructure sector. Even drones equipped with simple cameras can fly in safely and inspect the integrity of wind turbines, tunnels, and even mines.
The Drone Proving Grounds
Now, if a drone can save people from being hurt on the job, could it also save people who are already hurt?
Sources say the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
On the simplest level, traditional UAVs with cameras can be used at crime scenes to take photos from angles and perspectives that a regular photographer could never reach without compromising the scene.
The Butler County Sheriff's Office of Ohio has already submitted an application to the FAA to sanction the use of drones for this very thing.
Those same cameras can be used to help locate missing persons.
Searches can be done more quickly, and perhaps more accurately, with a long-range drone than with a long line of people.
The Donegal Mountain Rescue Team is already using drones to assist in search and rescue missions in remote areas of Ireland. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police — or Mounties — also use drones for search-and-rescue in Saskatoon and Nova Scotia.
And those Canadian rescue drones are being upgraded even further: Alec Momont of TU Delt has designed an “ambulance drone,” which has a built-in defibrillator. Cardiac arrest is a common affliction in the area, and the upgrade could potentially increase the number of survivors, which currently stands at just 8%.
The next step, of course, is drones big enough to carry people. The technology is being tested as you read this: one such test in Dubai found that the drone, which looks something like a miniaturized helicopter, could carry a passenger weighing up to 220 pounds plus one small suitcase for around 30 minutes.
Could rescue missions using these heli-drones be in the future? Let's hope so!
As for the usual smaller versions,there are a limited number of things most drones can be outfitted with since they're still rather limited in space and weight, but those things can be essential technologies.
Drones are also being upgraded for preventative safety measures.
One design called CUPID has been upgraded with autopilot, tracking, and facial recognition software, as well as a 50,000 volt stun gun. Its mission: identify and deal with human threats.
The designer, William Hurley, suggests that this could be handy in home protection scenarios. After all, who wouldn't want a flying, taser-wielding guard dog?
On a much larger scale, UAVs are even being outfitted for nuclear war.
Not for dropping bombs, but for detecting radiation from any bombs, or even nuclear reactor meltdowns.
If you've read anything about the horrific Chernobyl disaster, you know that the people who went in to work on the area, survey the damage, and close it off still live with the effects of the high radiation today.
Sending in drones could save countless lives simply by keeping people out of range of the radiation.
These UAVs are currently being studied at the Nevada National Security Site, a place you may know as the Nevada Proving Grounds.
But it's not just humans that these drones are saving.
Wildlife reserves from the U.S. to Africa to Australia are designing drones to monitor the state of the fauna, and even protect endangered species from predators, human or otherwise.
Drones designed in South Africa include infrared cameras that can identify animals of all kinds, plus any poachers who may be on the prowl.
Australian animal reserves are using radio drones to find tagged animals for research and monitoring.
In the U.S., Duke University's Marine Lab is working towards a drone that can locate and follow sharks, which, if you've watched an episode of pretty much anything on Discovery's Shark Week, you know is dangerous for both the researchers and the sharks.
Human and animal alike are being protected by drones of all sizes already! The next wave of national security tech could easily be these unmanned machines.
And on the flora side of things, drones can be used to cover several jobs that make up the integral agriculture business.
The first, and maybe most obvious use for UAVs here is the delivery of seeds, water, or pesticides to fields in need. A small drone is much more energy efficient than a large machine for spreading any of these things.
But that's not all that drones are doing for farmers...
Some drones can simply be used for monitoring of fields, and can take pictures that the farmer can examine without going into the field themselves.
One Swiss startup, Gamaya, is increasing the things these devices can detect.
For instance, the startup's design uses a camera that captures hyper-spectral images — things invisible to the naked eye. The pictures taken with this camera can identify hydration levels, fertilizer quality, crop yield, and even insect proliferation.
What's more, the drone can automatically take this information and analyze it. AI software can detect patterns and make predictions about unhealthy crops, as well as offer farmers suggestions.
This sector in particular is looking to be one of the best for the growth of drone use.
Think about it: not everyone needs aerial views of their home, or to know where the sharks are swimming today, but everyone does need food.
This may be the most important use of drones yet!
A study published by WinterGreen Research estimates that the market for agricultural drones alone could be worth more than $3.5 billion by 2022.
And that's still not the last of it...
Direct to Your Home
Drones these days are being used to make any number of things easier for people to do, if not taking the work out of the job entirely.
This includes regular household things, like... shopping.
If you've heard of commercial drones, you've heard of Amazon's plans to have same-day drone deliveries going as soon as they get regulatory approval. Currently, the company can only test its drones on sunny days with good visibility, but it hopes to be approved for wider testing soon.
Despite the high number of Section 333 approvals, the FAA still hasn't made it easy for Amazon.
But they're also not the only ones using drones for delivery.
The Timbre Group restaurant chain in Singapore is developing drones for waiters: infrared sensors scattered throughout the restaurant direct the drone to the table, where it can deliver up to 4.4 pounds of food and one drink at a time.
Dutch Eindhoven University of Technology has created a pop-up cafe, wherein the drones can take the orders with cameras in addition to delivering them.
What else could drones deliver? Wifi maybe?
Facebook seems to hope so.
The company is working on a drone network designed to fly high and bring wifi capabilities to remote areas.
Facebook's project is called Aquila, and will work on the 4G bandwidth spectrum. As of June, 2017, the company's Aquila drone has completed its second test flight at just under 2 hours long. At full capacity, the drones will be able to fly over an area for hours at a time, providing Wifi to nearby areas and staying in the air using integrated solar energy.
And if that isn't fantastical enough, check out how Disney wants to use its drones:
That's right: some day soon, Disney may replace its famous fireworks with light-covered drones. Certainly safer, but will it be as impressive?
Now, with this crazy long list of things drones can do, you'll want to know exactly where all of this fantastic tech is coming from.
While many of the most innovative companies are still private, we've found a few that are already established names in the commercial drone market.
The most obvious choice may be staring you in the face: GoPro (NASDAQ: GPRO) has made its own drones to go with its already famously high-quality cameras.
The device is called Karma, and the company's latest Hero 5 camera comes already equipped to attach to the drone. Since its release in late 2016, this pairing has been GoPro's most popular offering ever.
And while the company gets this new high-flying device out to customers, GoPro is still enjoying its partnership with energy drink company RedBull, which gives the camera company a whole new venue for exposure.
Though GoPro has faced a few issues in the past year, its drone and camera technology are still top-of-the-line. Its drones are used by photographers, sports enthusiasts, and drone hobbyists of at all levels. The company itself has a market cap just under $1.2 billion.
Still, GoPro is already up against some stiff competition. One of the biggest challengers will be major UAV producer AeroVironment (NASDAQ: AVAV).
The company makes drones for military-grade tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones, missile drones, and commercial drones equipped for many of the uses above.
AeroVironment is also working on a drone named Quantix, which will be used for commercial applications in the agriculture and energy industries. The drone was announced in late 2016, and is still under development.
The company also offers a suite of sensors that range from high-grade communications abilities to electro-optical video feeds to infrared thermal video.
These capabilities have been invaluable to a number of businesses already, including Duke Energy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.
And AeroVironment's tech prowess doesn't stop there.
When the company isn't making drones, it's working to create its own network of EV chargers. It offers home and business installation for stationary chargers, or the option of a mobile TurboCord charger that can plug right into the wall and works indoors and outdoors.
AeroVironment is, for the time being, still a small-cap company with only $890 million in market capitalization. However, its stock has risen more than 50% in five years, and is looking good to grow even faster as it expands its reach in the commercial drone market.
And if you're not in the market for a military-grade drone? InvenSense (NYSE: INVN) doesn't make drones, but it does make the chips that run them.
With all the new things drones are being asked to do, it takes a lot to keep them running and in the air. InvenSense's host of sensors, image stabilization, navigation, and even microphone tech run the gamut of capabilities these new commercial drones will need.
Already, the company's chips are in drones from makers like Parrot and DJI, as well as GoPro's Karma — the chips also feature in GoPro's cameras.
But that's not the least of InvenSense's customers. Its sensors are in a range of products by Black & Decker, Nintendo, Lenovo, Amazon, Verizon, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, Tesla, and more...
It's the number-one provider of processing chips for mobile phones, tablets, and drones due to the quality and sheer number of things the chips can control.
As of late September, 2016, the FAA has passed more than 5,550 Section 333 permits for various companies to use commercial drones, and that number is going to keep on growing.
Make no mistake, with companies like Disney, Facebook, and Amazon on the trail, drones will become common sights in our skies soon enough. And with these stocks under your belt, you'll be prepared to make a mint on the upcoming rise of the drones!