Idea of the Week: The Drone Economy : The New Yorker

Idea of the Week: The Drone Economy : The New Yorker.


When it comes to drones, many people think of targeted killings in faraway countries. (We’ve written about this subject extensively in the magazine and on However, the use of drones for a range of purposes here at home is on the horizon. A bill passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Obama will eventually open the national airspace to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or U.A.V.s, and requires that the Federal Aviation Administration have regulations for their use in place by 2015. The U.A.V. business is poised to expand.

Nick Paumgarten wrote about drones for the magazine last year, focussing mainly on their potential domestic applications. The natural assumption is that domestic U.A.V.s will be primarily used for public safety. This is already the case—the Department of Homeland Security uses Predators for border surveillance. Other potential uses range from the benign (firefighting) to the more troubling (identifying faces from the sky).

However, the vast majority of drones in the United States will probably be used for agriculture. According to a recent report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (A.U.V.S.I.), a trade group, over ninety per cent of the U.A.V. industry’s possible economic impact in 2015 (or about two billion dollars) will be agricultural. Drones can be used to more precisely spray crops, keep track of growth rates and hydration, and identify possible outbreaks of disease before they spoil a harvest.

The interactive infographic here shows A.U.V.S.I’s state-by-state economic projection for 2015, assuming F.A.A. regulations are in place:


The map shows the extent to which agricultural uses of drones are expected to outpace public-safety uses. Looking at individual states, you see some interesting, if not always surprising, data points. For example:

  • The largest economic impact will be in California, which has the biggest gross state product (G.S.P.) in the country. It’s home to several prominent U.A.V. manufacturers (General Atomics, for example, which makes the Predator), and it’s also the U.S.’s top agricultural producer.
  • Though only fourteenth in G.S.P., Washington is second in projected economic impact. It’s home to Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company.
  • Connecticut is twenty-third in G.S.P., but seventh in possible impact. The state is headquarters for United Technologies, one of the leading aerospace-parts manufacturers in the country.
  • Kansas, another relatively small economy, is also highly ranked in projected impact, at seventh. This is probably thanks to the state’s large agricultural sector, which was seventh in cash receipts in 2012.

With more commercial drones in America, the prospect of selling them to other countries will eventually become an issue. The U.S. already sells Predators internationally for military purposes, but what about the crop-dusting drones of the near future? Such trade could further buttress the numbers seen here, but it would present new risks—what if a U.A.V. falls into the wrong hands, or a plane with peaceful intentions is used to kill? This will be a question for Congress, as the drone economy emerges over the next few years.