The FAA Says There Will Be 7 Million Drones Flying Over America By 2020

Less than four years away

DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter

DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter

This is the latest version of a popular drone brand.Screenshot by author, from YouTube

Right now, there are around 2.5 million drones that regularly fly over American skies, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2020, that number could almost triple, with 7 million drones projected to be active in the skies over our heads, according to a new report) released by the agency today.

Of the drones currently buzzing around, they're split between roughly 1.5 million hobbyist drones and 500,000 commercial (the later being flown by companies for moneymaking purposes). But as that number increases, it will shape U.S. aerospace for decades to come.

That's one of the more interesting conclusions to emerge from the FAA's aerospace forecast for 2016 to 2036. An annual report, it's always an attempt to capture the next twenty years of sky trends. Here's the big finding about drones, which the FAA phrases as "unmanned aerial systems," or UAS:

Predictions for small UAS used in the commercial fleet are more difficult to develop given the dynamic, quickly-evolving nature of the market. Both sales and fleet size estimates share certain broad assumptions about operating limitations for small UAS during the next five years: daytime operations, within visual line of sight, and a single pilot operating only one small UAS at a time. The main difference in the high and low end of the forecasts is differing views on how those limitations will influence the widespread use of UAS for commercial purposes.

Right now, the FAA requires commercial drone operators to secure an exemption with it to fly, and also that hobbyist drone pilots register their craft. So far, an estimated 400,000 pilots have done so, according to a figure tweeted out by the FAA earlier this month (a modest increase from the 300,000 reported in January).

More interesting than the raw numbers, though, is the uses. The FAA expects that 42 percent of commercial drones will end up in industrial inspection, a further 19 percent in agriculture, 15 percent in insurance, 22 percent in real estate or aerial photography, and just 2 percent in government. (No other categories were provided).

That's a pretty big disconnect from the Center for the Study of the Drone's independent review of drone use, which found photography and real estate as the most common drone applications, and agriculture a distant third at just 11 percent.

So what’s the FAA doing to plan for this increase? “The FAA will continue to work with industry and stakeholders to safely integrate UAS into the [national air space]” reads a simple line at the end of the drone section. Here’s hoping they'll do more than just that.