The FAA has released its annual Aerospace Forecast Report Fiscal Years 2017 to 2037, which projects sustained and continued growth in nearly every aspect of air transportation from general aviation private flying to large commercial airline passenger levels.
A key new portion of the forecast focuses on the growth in the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). The FAA projects the small model hobbyist UAS fleet to more than triple in size from an estimated 1.1 million vehicles at the end of 2016 to more than 3.5 million units by 2021. The agency says this represents an average annual growth rate of 26.4%. The commercial, non-hobbyist UAS fleet is forecast to grow from 42,000 at the end of 2016 to about 442,000 aircraft by 2021, with an upside possibility of as many as 1.6 million UAS in use by 2021. Pilots of these UAS vehicles are expected to increase from 20,000 at the end of 2016 to a range of 10 to 20 times as many by 2021.
However, noting the “uncertainty about the public’s continued adoption” of UAS, the FAA has also laid out a high range of 4.5 million units and a low range of 2.74 million units by 2021. Although this growth rate will be “fairly steady” over the first few years of this time span, the FAA predicts that it could slow in the last two years.
As for commercial drones, the FAA brings up the notion that the numbers will depend on the “regulatory environment” (i.e., what the agency itself is in charge of advancing). Specifically, the FAA predicts the country’s 42,000-drone fleet at the end of 2016 could rise to a 442,000-drone fleet by 2021 – representing an average annual growth rate of 58.6%. On the other hand, the agency offers a high case of 1.62 million and a low case of 237,900 in 2021.
Considering the “dynamic, quickly evolving” market for commercial UAS, the FAA claims that its predictions for this sector are not as easy to calculate; they include “certain broad assumptions about operating limitations for small UAS during the next five years based on the basic constraints of the existing regulations”: e.g., not being able to operate at night or beyond the visual line of sight and not being allowed to fly more than one drone at a time – operations that are currently only permitted via a waiver process on a case-by-case basis. The FAA says it does, indeed, plan to eventually roll out regulations in which operators could fly under these parameters on a “more routine basis,” however.
Further, the agency says the number of remote pilots (i.e., commercial drone operators) could spike from 20,362 at the end of 2016 to 281,300 in 2021 – representing an average annual growth rate of 69.1%. As for the low and high cases, respectively, the FAA offers numbers of 211,000 and 422,000. (The agency cites the “uncertainty in the ratio of remote pilots per commercial UAS vehicles.”)
Notably, under its Part 107 rules for commercial UAS operations, the FAA says it has issued more than 29,000 certificates to remote pilots; moreover, as of February, more than 90% of the test-takers have passed the exam.
“The commercial drone sector is very dynamic and appears to be at an early stage of growth,” the report says. “Unlike the hobbyist sector, FAA anticipates that growth in this sector will continue to accelerate over the next few years. Given the clarity that Part 107 has provided to the industry, increasing commercial applications will become likely, which will facilitate additional growth.”
To compile the statistics in its entire aerospace report, the FAA says it uses a “variety of economic data and projections,” including “generally accepted projections for the nation’s gross domestic product.” In addition, the FAA says it is making use of information from both submitted waiver applications and issued remote pilot certifications to further understand trends in the drone industry.
“This forecast is primarily driven by the ongoing evolution of the UAS regulatory environment, the ingenuity of manufacturers and operators, and underlying demand,” the report adds. “While continuing to enable the thriving UAS industry, these efforts will enable the safe integration of UAS into the [National Airspace System].”