The Coast Guard uses them to conduct surveillance on ice sheets in Alaska.
And this five and a half pound drone developed by the California-based company Aerovironment is being marketed to law enforcement.
"These systems are really meant to kind of take over the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. And protect citizens lives. This technology really is the wave of the future," explains Gretchen West of AUVSI.
Drone makers predict they'll eventually be used in agriculture, real estate and disaster assessment, among other fields.
And in an important legal test this week, a judge upheld the use of a Border Patrol drone that helped local authorities in North Dakota with surveillance during the arrests of several members of one family in a dispute over cattle.
A new law requires the Federal Aviation Administration to draw up rules by 2015 to fully integrate drones into the national airspace.
But the FAA's mission is safety. What about privacy?
Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey (D-MA) is worried the use of drones by government and eventually private companies could violate Americans' privacy.
He's working on federal legislation that would establish rules for how data can be collected and how long it can be kept.
"The public should know who controls these drones. They should be able to find out which drone flew over their house," believes Markey. "They should be able to find out what data was collected by that drone."
Some scholars believe the fears about drones are misplaced.
"I think that sometimes there's a misconception that we're going to walk out of the grocery store five years from now and look up in the sky and see dozens of drones circling overhead and have to duck to make sure we don't get hit by one," says John Villasenor of the
Brookings Institution. "I think the reality's much more subdued than that."
The future of drones in America is now. New laws, and ultimately the courts, will decide just how much privacy citizens will be allowed to retain.
(Athena Jones, CNN)