The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released its annual Aerospace Forecast for 2017-2037.1 The report predicts tremendous growth in “nearly every aspect of air transportation” over the next five years, including unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The forecast confirms what is apparent to those participating in and monitoring the UAS industry and, as the FAA notes, is driven by the evolution of the UAS regulatory environment, the ingenuity of manufacturers and operators, and underlying demand.
Commercial Small UAS Forecast
The FAA’s much-anticipated final rule regarding small UAS, 14 C.F.R. Part 107, went into effect on August 29, 2016. The rule established a framework for the routine operation of small UAS for commercial purposes and provided the UAS industry with the clarity it needs to grow and thrive. According to FAA estimates, the small UAS non-hobbyist fleet will continue to grow tenfold from 42,000 in 2016 to 420,000 in 2021. However, as the FAA recognizes, predictions for the commercial sector are difficult in that the scope of permissible operations is inextricably tied to the regulatory regime.
Studies cited by the FAA reflect that major applications currently include aerial photography, construction, industrial and utility inspection, real estate and agriculture. In addition, case by case waivers are being granted to allow for operations outside of Part 107, such as night operations, operations over people, and operations beyond visual line of sight. The introduction of regulations to allow routine flight under those conditions would further support growth and innovation.
Model Aircraft and Hobbyist Forecast
Pursuant to 14 C.F.R. Part 48, all small UAS used exclusively as model aircraft weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds must be registered with the FAA. As of December 31, 2016, there were 626,000 registered hobbyists which the FAA estimates corresponds to approximately 1.1 million UAS that can be identified as hobbyist or model aircraft.
The FAA predicts that the hobbyist fleet will likely triple in size to over 3.5 million UAS by 2021. This significant anticipated growth is tied to falling prices, improved technology and ease of use.
Remote Pilot Forecast
The FAA issues Remote Pilot Licenses pursuant to Part 107. As of December 2016, the FAA has issued over 29,000 such licenses to individuals able to successfully pass an aeronautical knowledge exam. Judging by trends in Remote Pilot licenses issued and trends in commercial small UAS registration, the FAA predicts that the number of Remote Pilots will grow significantly.
We will continue to track legal and regulatory developments impacting the UAS industry and look forward to seeing the realization of the FAA’s projections for the industry.
1 See FAA Aerospace Forecast Fiscal Years 2017-2037 at https://www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation/aerospace_forecasts/