The FAA’s Aerospace Forecast for 2017 has just been released – and the numbers for the drone industry look a little different this year. While a quick summary of this year’s predictions show tremendous growth – the agency predicts a 10-fold increase in the commercial drone fleet by 2021 – the FAA has changed predictions from last year to reflect the reality of the commercial drone space.
Clearer numbers are good news for the US industry, which has been subjected to wildly varying predictions from a seemingly endless list of research groups, many presenting a totally unrealistic growth model based on very little real data.
The FAA’s numbers last year showed predictions of commercial drone sales rising to 2.7 million units by 2020. By comparison, this year’s baseline forecast is for a fleet of .327 million units by 2020. The more than 2 million unit drop, explains FAA Deputy Division Manager Michael Lukacs, is partly due to a change in model. While last year’s numbers represented unit sales, this year’s numbers predict a data point more important to regulators: the number of drones actually in operation. It’s a subtle difference, but a significant one. Drone tech is changing so rapidly that operators frequently upgrade equipment, so sales are not necessarily equivalent to fleet numbers.
More importantly, says Lukacs, the FAA and the drone industry have a much clearer view of the regulatory structure around commercial drone flight than they did last year. With the data provided by Part 107 testing and registration, and a clear roadmap for drone integration moving forward, researchers can establish more realistic figures about the pace of industry growth.
FAA researchers are still optimistic about the commercial market. “The commercial drone sector is very dynamic and appears to be at an early stage of growth,” says the report. “…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.”
While the baseline numbers for the commercial drone market are conservative at .422 million in 2021, the new model of predictions offers a best case scenario – the “high” prediction – with an estimate of 1.616 million units by 2021. The wide variance between low and high, explains Lukacs, takes the changing industry into consideration – something the FAA does not discount. New innovation and new applications are developing quickly, which could have an accelerator effect. “The ingenuity of the US drone industry is the wildcard,” says Lukacs.