This is a special series of SA Forum essays produced with the World Economic Forum and to run during the Summit on the Global Agenda, held in Abu Dhabi from November 18 to November 20

The word "drone", a short term for an unmanned aerial vehicle, usually conjures up images of a menacing machine that spies and shoots from on high. However, over the past three years, a new generation of drones has emerged to address civilian and humanitarian needs, from surveying disaster zones to delivering aid. In the future, friendly drones could even whisk commuters above congested streets or haul cargo across Africa – if a desperate lack of legislation is addressed.

Rapid progress in two key technological areas lies behind this new wave of friendly drones. On the one hand, essential parts including batteries and sensors have become smaller and cheaper, largely because of progress in commercial electronic devices. Little drones that can safely fly in your living room are now as affordable as smartphones. In fact, by some measures, toy drones by far outnumber military drones. Over the past three years, about 500,000 Parrot AR.Drones – a hovering toy with four helicopter blades – were sold, compared with the 7,100 drones operated by the US military, according to reports in Wired and the Department of Defense.

On the other hand, significant advances in sensing and artificial intelligence now allow machines to perceive their environments and navigate autonomously. While the technology is not yet as mature for small drones as it is for self-drive cars – maneuvering through the air is trickier than on land, and there are added weight constraints – mini-drones used for professional purposes are nonetheless becoming safer and easier to use. For example, the senseFly eBee, used for professional aerial mapping, looks a little like a high-tech, black and yellow paper aircraft, is small enough to fit into a carry-on suitcase, and has an insect-like visual sensor that allows it to land safely next to its operator after steering itself through a survey flight.

The combination of sophisticated sensors, adaptive artificial intelligence and safe design will soon allow these airborne inventions to play graciously with children or to fly above congested traffic.

This new generation of safe, sophisticated mini-drones has the potential to offer social and economic benefits, such as monitoring crops, tracking wildlife, carrying out surveys for construction and mining, and protecting the environment.

Humanitarian organizations are also beginning to see drones as friends rather than foes. For example, Drone Adventures, a non-for-profit organization, trains local people to use drones to survey disaster areas and refugee camps to help deliver aid. An NGO executive told me that women in large refugee camps ask for more drone surveys to prevent rape, kidnapping and killing. Other projects are developing mini-drones that work with teams of people and dogs in rescue missions, or that rapidly establish aerial radio communication networks before rescuers are dispatched. In the future, imagine personal mini-drones that can be launched from your backpack to search for help if you have an accident.

The new breed of drone also opens up new opportunities in transport and logistics. Instead of a motorbike, mini-drones could be used to deliver parcels in cities or remote rural areas. In Africa, the Flying Donkey Challenge aims to use commercial cargo drones to shift heavy suitcases over long distances by 2020. Drones could also act like personal jet packs to carry people around congested cities. The myCopter project, funded by the European Commission, is already carrying out a feasibility study in this area.

Despite all these opportunities and technological advances, the market for civilian and humanitarian drones is likely to remain relatively small over the next 10 years because of a dearth of legislation.

Appropriate legislation is essential to ensure safety standards, to establish who can fly what and where, to set liability policies, to ensure flights are traceable, and to protect privacy. Most countries ban drones from passing beyond the line of sight, or require them to comply with the same rules as regular aircrafts, or indeed require special authorization. While the US Congress has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations allowing civil drones to share national airspace by 2015, the situation in Europe and elsewhere remains fragmented or unregulated.

A lack of legislation, or too restrictive legislation, is preventing society and the economy from benefiting from friendly drones. It is crucial that policy-makers talk to experts about how to harness this new technology, instead of clipping its wings.