How the Pentagon Uses Drones | DoD Domestic Drone Use Reaches All-time High


31 January 2019

Department of Defense (DoD) drone operations have reached an all-time high in the United States according to new data released by the Pentagon. According to the data, the Pentagon deployed drones domestically more often last year than in the previous five years combined.

When prompted to think about drone use by the military, many think about the deployment of armed drones in foreign wars. It’s not often that military drone use is discussed stateside/domestically. However, this new data reveals that military drone use is on the rise here at home in the U.S. But it may not be in the ways you expect.


The majority of domestic DoD drone operations took place to support civilian authorities, such as firefighters, civilian law enforcement officers, and first-responders. Let’s take a look at the data:

DoD UAS Operations in 2018:

  • 4 operations to support firefighters
  • 2 operations to support domestic DoD installations (military bases located in the U.S.)
  • 1 operation to support civil authorities at the southern border
  • 1 operation to support civil authorities in hurricane/flood response
  • 1 operation to support civil law enforcement in counterdrug operations
  • 1 operation to support Public Affairs with an air show within DoD airspace
  • 1 training exercise operation

During the 2018 fiscal year, the Pentagon engaged in 11 total domestic drone operations. Some of these operations involved multiple drone flights and took place over several months.

The majority of domestic DoD drone operations took place as part of the effort to monitor the California wildfires that started last summer. Military drone operations typically don’t cross over into the civilian sector; however, the DoD used drones to support CAL Fire multiple times throughout the year. Drones are used by firefighters to collect vital information about ongoing fires and to assess the damage they leave behind. This data enables firefighters to focus their efforts where their help is most needed, keep them from harm’s way, and save lives.

Similarly, drones are able to assist with other natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes. In September 2018, the DoD used drones to assist civil authorities, such as emergency medical service personnel, with Hurricane Florence flood response efforts.


The drones used in the DoD operations discussed above include multirotor and fixed-wing drones. Some must be launched by hand while others can take off autonomously. According to the data shared from the Pentagon, the drones used in the DoD’s 2018 domestic operations include:

  • DJI Phantom
  • MQ-1C Gray Eagle 4
  • MQ-9 Reaper
  • RQ-11B Raven
  • RQ-21 Blackjack

DJI Phantom 1

DJI Phantom 1, Source: Clément Bucco-Lechat via WikiMedia


The DJI Phantom is a multirotor quadcopter drone developed by Chinese technology company DJI. Multirotor drones are commonly equipped with a camera and can be used to quickly get an “eye in the sky.” These drones provide excellent control over positioning, allowing the operator to direct precise movements and collect accurate data.

In May of 2018, the DoD issued a ban on the purchase and use of commercial off-the-shelf drones (including DJI drones) due to cybersecurity concerns. So while the DJI Phantom appears on this list, its use by the DoD has since been suspended.

The MQ-1C Gray Eagle 4 and the MQ-9 Reaper are large, fixed-wing drones. Both were developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for military use. These drones are better suited for long-endurance flights at higher altitudes than multirotor drones like the DJI Phantom.


The RQ-11B Raven was developed by AeroVironment and is a small, hand-launched, fixed-wing drone. It was designed specifically for the United States military but is now used in defense operations by countries around the world.

The RQ-21 Blackjack was developed by Boeing and is another fixed-wing drone. The benefit of this unmanned aircraft is its ability to carry heavy payloads (up to 39 lbs.) and to travel at high speeds.


Just as the military is increasing their use of drones, so are civilians. Drones have been used by the military since the times of World War II, but the civilian and commercial use of drones has only taken off recently.

The number of registered drone operators in the U.S. has exploded in recent years, reaching over 116,000 in 2018. This increase in drone use by civilians is due, in part, to the FAA’s establishment of the Part 107 Rule in 2016 for commercial drone operations. Additionally, the rise is also the result of the mainstream commercialization of drones readily available for purchase from public retailers.

So how are drones being used in the civilian sector? We’ve already mentioned some use cases, such as firefighting and natural disaster response, but those are only a couple of ways drones can be used. Drones are used in agriculture to count crops and analyze crop yields. They’re used on construction sites to survey and map out building projects. They’re used by utility companies to inspect power lines, oil wells, and equipment. This list could reach down the page, but you probably already see just how much value drones can offer civilian and commercial industries.

There are hundreds of ways to use drones with more applications still to be discovered and explored. It can be assumed that there are still industries which drones have yet to penetrate—industries where the potential to increase efficiency with drones is still to be recognized. As the technology becomes more mainstream, new and expanded uses for drones will be recognized in more fields of work.

Share your thoughts on the increasing use of drone technology in both the military and civil sectors in this thread on our community forum.

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