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News & Notes

FAA Releases Optimistic Aerospace Forecast

The report observes industry trends and looks toward the future

March 23, 2017

Over the next five years, the FAA estimates that there will be more than 3.5 million hobbyist drones and 420,000 commercial drones in the U.S. These estimates are a part of the FAA’s Aerospace Forecast for 2017 – 2037.

While it’s been just over one year since the FAA implemented the mandatory drone registration system,, more than 626,000 drone hobbyists and more than 44,000 commercial operators have registered. Each week there are between 5,000 and 7,000 new hobbyist registrants (even more during the holidays) and about 1,000 non-hobbyists.

The FAA estimates that the number of drones used for hobby purposes will soon triple, from 1.1 million in 2016 to more than 3.5 million by 2021. However, the FAA expects the growth rate of hobby drones to eventually slow as prices become steady and “early adopters learn to make use of their aircraft.” Drone companies like Up Sonder that bring the sharing economy to drone users may also decrease the demand for hobby drone purchases.
On the other hand, the administration anticipates that the number of commercial drones will continue to grow for the next few years. The FAA estimates that the commercial fleet will be 10 times larger by 2021, growing from 42,000 in 2016 to 420,000 by 2021.

Flying commercially has become easier thanks to Part 107, which has allowed a larger number of industries and drone operators to get more out of drone technology. As of December 2016, there are more than 29,000 Part 107-certified Remote Pilots in the U.S, and the FAA expects the number of Remote Pilots to grow considerably ― The Drone Girl reported that the FAA had issued over 37,000 Remote Pilot certificates as of March 21.

Some certified commercial drone pilots apply for waivers in order to operate around Part 107’s more general limitations. The top five waiver requests are:
1) Night operations (65%)
2) Operations over people (35%)
3) BVLOS operations (19%)
4) Operations from a moving vehicle (9%)
5) Operational limitation: altitude (9%)

*Numbers exceed 100% because many waiver requests include relief for multiples types of operations.

“Future regulatory development will allow [waiverable] operations on a more routine basis,” states the report. “Meanwhile, analysis of these waiver applications allows us to understand industry trends, one of many metrics that is essential for projecting both the trajectory and growth trends of the sector.”
Consumer and prosumer drones like the DJI Phantom 4 will make up most of the commercial fleet over the next five years, the FAA estimates.
Drew Halverson
But it won’t be expensive, large, professional drones adding to the number of commercial drones (yet), but rather prosumer-grade drones like the DJI Phantom 4, DJI Mavic Pro, and Yuneec Typhoon H. Over the next five years, the FAA expects over 95% of drones being used for commercial purposes to be consumer or prosumer grade.

The report also provides useful insight into how drone use is evolving and taking hold in various commercial uses. The top uses for small commercial drones are:
1) Aerial photography (34%)
2) Construction, industrial and utility inspection (26%)
3) Real estate (26%)
4) Agriculture (21%)

*Numbers exceed 100% because many UAS have multiple uses.

These numbers somewhat differ from last year’s report, which included information on the top five U.S. markets for sUAS and grouped real estate and aerial photography together. Last year’s top categories were industrial inspection, agriculture, insurance, real estate/aerial photography, and government.

Based on this report, drones, especially commercial UAS, aren't going anywhere but up. However, some in the industry are wary of such optimism. With the FAA facing regulatory uncertainty and questionable funding, the growth of the industry may be at risk. Learn about the FAA's funding woes.

Editor's note: The FAA made low-end and high-end estimates in the Aerospace Forecast. We reported on the base estimates (those likely to happen) from the report.
Featured image: pixabay/hongmyeon