The drone revolution with the potential to change the world

Photo: ITV News/On Assignment

It may no longer be the latest in surveillance technology. The ultra-secret kit is in the hands of the CIA and will never put on display for TV crews.

Nonetheless the Global Hawk, operated by the US Air Force, is impressive.

It's a pilotless plane with immense wings that costs around $200 million, and with the ability to fly non-stop for 36 hours, it plays a central role high above Iraq and Afghanistan, ceaselessly scanning for threats.

We were granted access to the air base in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where several of the Global Hawks are based.

The Global Hawk can fly non-stop for 36 hours without a pilot. Credit: ITV News/On Assignment

The location is significant for North Dakota is making a major play to be the birthplace of the commercial drone revolution, a revolution which industry groups estimate could be worth up to $80bn to the US economy in the next decade.

The University of North Dakota, Grand Forks was the first in the country to run a course in unmanned aviation, designed to train a new generation of pilots who will specialize in this type of aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also designated it as the first of its test sites, part of the ongoing experiment to work out how they can integrate an estimated 20,000 drones into the US skies in the next decade.

North Dakota is on the front line of the drone revolution. Credit: ITV News/On Assignment

Even the local sheriff here has a few drones at his operational disposal, he calls them his ‘force multiply-er’, allowing him to cover more ground with less men in designated situations such as search and rescues.

So North Dakota is a fascinating place to study this emerging technology.

It's a bit like arriving in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 as the Wright Brothers were taking to the air.

Or like dropping in on a small garage in Los Altos in 1976, as a young Steve Jobs developed his embryonic Apple computer.

The aviation evangelists in North Dakota have the same fanatical self-belief - claiming that by developing commercial drones they're riding the next great wave of innovation.

The FAA has a decision to make in 2015, whether or not to grant widespread licenses for the use of commercial drones in the United States.

Currently this country may have stricter laws than other others such as Brazil or Australia but over half the world’s research and development happens here and whatever decision is made could have a world-changing affect on all our lives.

Companies such as Facebook and Google are interested in the potential of drones to deliver internet services. Credit: ITV News/On Assignment

The tech giants are lining up in readiness.

Facebook and Google have both acquired drone companies, acknowledging their ability to deliver internet to the remaining 5bn people on the planet who don’t have a proper internet connection yet.

Amazon’s aspirations could be far more visible as they develop a door-to-door delivery service using their PrimeAir craft.

From tackling wildfires in California to assessing oilrigs in Alaska, the evangelists will say their uses are limited only by our imagination.

And yet that entrepreneurial spirit is battling another great all-American tradition - suspicion of big government.

So there are politicians running campaigns against the use of drones.

There are libertarian, anti-government activists holding events where they shoot down their own drones, in anticipation of federal pilotless planes being used to spy on ordinary Americans.

So when the FAA starts to de-regulate America's airspace Americans have to confront the question of whether the drone is their friend or their foe.

Robert Moore's film on the drone revolution in America can be seen in On Assignment, tonight at 10.35pm on ITV1.