April 6, 2016

The unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) fleet will mushroom throughout the rest of the decade, aided by new FAA rules and emerging roles for business use of unmanned aircraft, according to the FAA’s latest forecast.

The agency is projecting sales as high as 2.5 million UAS in 2016, growing to 7 million annually in 2020. The FAA, working with consultancy Teal Group, developed its UAS forecast based, in part, upon the requirement that all UAS weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds be registered with the FAA before they can legally operate in the UAS. Registration began in mid-December, and about 410,000 had been registered by mid-March.

Meanwhile, the FAA is developing its first small UAS rule. It will govern commercial UAS operations, including, eventually, operations beyond visual line of sight, which is not permitted now.

The FAA expects that the rule, slated for release by early summer, will apply to two distinct markets: smaller UAS costing an average of $2,500, and larger UAS that cost an average of $40,000. In a separate forecast that focuses on the potential impact of the new rule, and is therefore more conservative, the FAA said the commercial UAS fleet should approach 550,000 in 2020, including 52,000 in the more expensive category.

“UAS will be come an increasingly important part of the business aviation fleet in the coming years as FAA develops rules to safely integrate these aircraft into the National Airspace System and operators take advantage of their capabilities,” said NBAA Director of Air Traffic Services Bob Lamond. “NBAA will play an active role in supporting operators and helping the agency develop its integration program.”

NBAA has long maintained that integration of UAS into the National Airspace System must be a thoughtful, deliberate process. That is, UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft until they have equivalent certification and airworthiness standards as manned aircraft.

The FAA said the commercial UAS fleet’s most prevalent roles will include industrial inspection (42 percent), real estate/aerial photography (22 percent), agriculture (19 percent) and insurance (11 percent). Exactly how quickly the fleet grows, however, will be tied to both the development pace and flexibility of the new rules.

“The number of small UAS forecasted is highly uncertain and is dependent on the regulatory structure ultimately adopted,” explained the FAA. “Once a final rule for small UAS is published, they will become more commercially viable than they are today.”

View the FAA’s UAS forecast.

View NBAA’s UAS resources.