In fact, 2014 may go down in industry history as the benchmark year when the drone-sales curve began its upward ascent. However, trying to nail down precise sales figures of domestic drones this past year is as tricky as trying to understand FAA regulations.
Here’s what we do know: Virtually every tech expert polled is extremely bullish about the industry’s bright future. Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics estimates that at least 500,000 have already been sold in the U.S. Anderson’s company is expected to top $40 million in sales in 2015, which would roughly translate to about 53,000 units (not counting any accessories 3DR may sell).
According to the Washington Post, the FAA estimates domestic drone sales will top a total of $90 billion within a decade. “We’re not talking here about the lethal, multi-million dollar military aircraft that are changing the nature of warfare. We’re talking about small, consumer-friendly devices that sell today to hobbyists and others for less than $300,” the Post reports. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has repeatedly stated that private drone sales will top $82 billion in their first decade, generating about 100,000 jobs
Still, estimating exactly how many drones were sold in 2014 and how much revenue that represents can be a sticky wicket. For one thing, since the industry is relatively new, there are not as many analysts tracking the industry – although that’s changing fast with the rise of new investment indices. Add to that the fact that deriving any sales figures from any one sector so early in the following year can be hit or miss. However, several sector experts are chiming in with estimates.
Cumulatively, MarketWatch estimated that the entire small-drone sector (it’s unclear if that includes military apps) would bank a cumulative $1.33 billion in 2014 “with significant potential for growth.”
The fact that drone sales have bloomed will continue to be driven by how price-friendly companies can be. “The market is blossoming because drones are now affordable,” Mike Blades, senior industry analyst for aerospace and defense at Frost and Sullivan, said in a recent CNBC report. He estimated worldwide consumer sales will top $720 million on drones in 2014 – indicating a robust non-American market as well. “This equates to 200,000 units sold each month. He expects spending to double in 2015, growing to $4.5 billion by 2020.”
As more drone companies report sales, the science of UAV forecasting will also improve. Atlanta Hobby told Bloomberg that it booked $20 million in 2014 sales “a 10-fold increase from five years ago that prompted [the company] to start a drone-training school.” Bloomberg also reports that Amazon is selling more than 10,000 drones a month.
Another sales data issue lies in the fact that most drone companies do not release sales figure, further clouding the crystal ball. However, red-hot drone companies like DJI are not too bashful when it comes to sales reporting – nor should they be, given their rocketing success. The maker of the popular Phantom series recently told the Wall Street Journal that annual sales zoomed from $4.2 million in 2011 to $130 million in 2013. The company expected 2014 sales to be five times greater, which would blow Blades’ CNBC estimate out of the water.
As Fortune recently reported, the only real obstacle that can stop the Drone Money Train is the FAA and its ever-morphing tentacles of changing regulations and unclear policy. Clay Dillow reports that the only way the industry can grow is under the assumption that the FAA integrates more UAV-friendly policies:
“Under the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act, Congress ordered aviation authorities to develop a regulatory framework for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015, a deadline that the FAA may not meet. The process of naming six federally approved UAS testing sites necessary for developing the kinds of technologies that will enable safe airspace integration was delayed indefinitely last year while the agency dealt with various public privacy concerns (the process resumed last month), and a variety of critical technical problems — not least of which involve “sense and avoid” technologies, which allow unmanned systems to maintain safe distances between each other as well as manned aircraft — have yet to be resolved.”