Drones photo
NASA Dryden

Salon’s interesting takeaway from last week’s big reveal of the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of certified drone operators cleared to fly unmanned aerial systems in U.S. airspace: the biggest drone users in the U.S. aren’t law enforcement agencies, but universities. Twenty-five academic institutions have received certificates of authorization (COAs), making up nearly half of the 60 entities with permission to fly unmanned systems.

So this drone proliferation isn’t quite as sinister as it may have seemed, right? Things unfortunately aren’t so black and white. While universities may make up half the list of drone users (the rest are military branches and defense agencies, drone manufacturers, and law enforcement), it turns out the military is also picking up the tab for a good deal of the research. So while institutions of learning are developing the next-gen drone technology that will undoubtedly pilot the future, the end-user may have less-than benign intentions.

That’s not to say it’s all technology geared toward domestic spying or upgrading the drone war either. Kansas State University is reportedly working with the state’s National Guard contingent on technology that will improve disaster response. Students at Middle Tennessee State are pursuing agriculture applications with their drone program–and taking assistance from the U.S. Army. Likewise, Georgia Tech’s drone research gets backing from the U.S. Army Research Lab, just as U. of Michigan researchers are bankrolled by the Air Force Research Labs.

Those fearing that the coming drone explosion is going to fuel a new era of unprecedented Big-Brotherdom and drone warfare might follow the money back to the source and see their worst fears confirmed. But the fact of the matter is that much of our technology–and indeed many of our greatest technologies (Spaceflight anyone? Perhaps you prefer the Internet?)–have rolled downhill from military-backed programs, where massive post-war budgets have made big league research projects possible.

The encroachment on civil liberties by drone technology is most definitely a legitimate concern that must be addressed, but for the time being even the more distrustful among us can take a little bit of comfort from the fact that as of right now the research community is buying up drones faster than domestic law enforcement.