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FAA Report Predicts 7 Million New Drones by 2020

BY Alan Perlman
25 March 2016

It’s not every day that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) releases information, let alone 90+ pages of it, so when they do… we stop and listen. Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration released its annual Aerospace Forecast Report and we’ve spent the past half-day combing through the report to see what relevant information is contained within for the UAS community/industry.

Foremost, the report details the administrations forecast information for fiscal years 2016 to 2036 and within that time span, they’ve focused a fair amount of the report to UAS. The FAA estimates that more than 7 million small unmanned aircrafts are expected to be purchased by 2020 with 2.5 million sales forecasted for this year, alone. Sales of this magnitude would see a substantial increase from previous estimates as the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that roughly 700,000 UAVs would ship for 2015 in the United States.

While actual sales numbers are difficult to come by, it should be noted that as of March 2016, only 408,000 people had registered their drones with the FAA, so a 700,000 sales figure isn’t too far-fetched. Further, the forecast estimates that of these potential 7 million new UAVs that 4.3 million aircrafts will be flying for recreational purposes and 2.7 million will be flying for commercial reasons. These figures show a marked anticipation of growth for both the hobbyist and commercial UAS markets over the coming years.


The forecast report is welcomed information for UAS operators, owners and enthusiasts as it is seen as a precursor to the FAA’s new regulations publication, which is expected later in spring or summer of this year. It is hoped that these new regulations with create a standardized and feasible path toward complete compliance for operators of small UAS. Without a specific rule in place for UAS, the current setup is criticized by some as cumbersome, inefficient, or overbearing. For those looking to operating legally and safely, the establishment of specialized rules is deeply desired.

The entire UAS community appears to see these regulations as the beginning of a new point for this fledgling industry and the FAA seems to agree with that sentiment. The finalization of this rule is expected to substantially increase the commercial viability for UAS.

The FAA estimates that industrial inspection will lead the field for UAS business sectors with aerial photography, agricultural, insurance, and government sectors rounding out the top five.


It is still unknown to what degree the new regulations will ease the process of using UAS for commercial purposes. Currently, it is illegal under Federal law to use drones or UAS for commercialization unless an exemption is obtained from the FAA. To date, more than 4000 exemptions have been authorized by the government agency.

Within the framework of the report, the FAA does offer some promising information when it comes to future prospects for UAS operators. While it doesn’t appear that the agency will be removing the visual line of sight requirements any time soon, they have established the UAS Focus Area Pathfinders initiative to explore issues such as operation beyond visual line of sight in rural areas and safe operation procedures in populated areas.

The FAA makes a point to state that the demand for commercial UAS “will soar once regulations more easily enable beyond visual line of sight operations and operations of multiple UA by a single pilot.” This recognition shows the agency recognizes the importance of these features, but knows they need to be careful in terms how they implement them, which is a valid and fair concern. Through their own admission they appear ready “to work with industry and stakeholders to safely integrate UAS into the [National Airspace],” as they write in the report.

From reviewing this report, the FAA is allotting a substantial amount of research and consideration into the future of UAS in the United States, which is comforting. As you read the report, you genuinely get the impression that they want to make this work and are trying to figure out how to weigh the safety and privacy concerns against the economic and innovation consideration – they’re seeking a balance. If this report is any indication of what the UAS community should expect from future regulations, then I think we may be pleasantly surprised.

This report is a step in the right direction. It’s good to see the FAA acknowledging the growth of the sUAS industry, and to commit again to publishing a final rule in late spring of 2016. Of course, even if a new rule is finalized, it might be several more months before sUAS pilots can go an FAA-recognized sUAS certification, but I’m still excited where the industry is heading.

Download the full FAA report here.

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