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A second jump occurred in the mid-1990s, when self-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles entered widespread deployment and Navy fighters began making automated landings on aircraft carriers.

“The two things that always made Navy pilots better than everyone else, at least in our minds, were our bombing accuracy and landing on the carrier,” said Ms. Cummings, who left the military to get a doctorate in systems engineering from the University of Virginia. “Well, if the computer can do those things better — and always do them better — it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ I jumped out of the service and got into the UAV business right away.”

Today, drones largely are confined to the military, which reportedly has more than 7,500 vehicles in service, and hobbyists such as Mr. Munoz, who are flying roughly double that number. Current Federal Aviation Administration rules mostly prohibit commercial drone use, and amateurs are subject to strict guidelines: no flying above 400 feet, near populated areas or outside the operator’s line of sight.

A federal law passed in February, however, compels the FAA to allow drone use by police and emergency services later this year and allow “safe” commercial UAV use by September 2015.

“When the [FAA] opens things up, some of the robotics companies describe it for them as being the same as what the Internet did for desktop computers,” said Peter W. Singer, a senor follow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

“I was talking with an executive at one company about this. They already do a good business, but their primary client is the Department of Defense. Add in state, local and federal law enforcement agencies, and the marketplace potentially has something like 21,000 new clients.”

California-based drone manufacturer AeroVironment produces a series of smaller UAVs for the military — some of them backpack size, hand-launchable and as light as 4.2 pounds, able to provide real-time video surveillance day and night.

Already in limited use by the U.S. Geological Survey to perform soil erosion studies, the smaller drones cost around $50,000 and could become popular with police departments that need aerial-surveillance capability but can’t afford manned helicopters, which cost in the millions.

“Think of a toddler wandering away from home, or an elderly person with Alzheimer’s wandering off in a city,” said Steve Gitlin, a spokesman for AeroVironment. “Think of an office hostage situation where exits and entrances need to be watched, or a hazardous-material incident at a chemical plant where it’s too dangerous to send in people.

“Think of traffic accidents. How useful would it be to have a system that can fly 100 feet above and piece together a picture of what happened? These systems can be kept in the trunk of a car and deployed in five minutes.”

Commercial drone use has greater potential still. Chris Anderson, a drone hobby enthusiast and the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, said civilian UAVs likely will be deployed first to perform tasks that are “dull, dirty and dangerous” for humans.

Cases in point? Crop-dusting and agricultural monitoring. Inspecting pipelines and offshore oil rigs. Ms. Cummings thinks that within 10 years, shipping companies such as FedEx and UPS will transport packages via autonomous jumbo jets.

“Israel has a UAV the size of a 737 that can take off and land and do everything itself,” she said. “It’s packed with cameras right now. Take those out, and you have a cargo airplane.

“These companies are chomping at the bit, and there’s no technical reason we can’t do this now. The only reason we don’t is regulatory issues.”

University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite spent nearly two decades as a reporter, often covering natural disasters. Last summer, he was attending a digital-mapping conference in San Diego when he came across the GateWing X100, a small UAV.

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