The first meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) new Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) offered some enlightening insight into the current projections on the U.S. drone industry; they were low. Apparently very low. More than 550,000 civilian small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) have been registered with the FAA in the nine months since the agency created the registration program, according to Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA's drone office. That means in less than one year drones have more than doubled the number of 260,165 manned aircraft registered in the U.S., and this is only the beginning.
Lawrence told the DAC that new drone registrations are averaging nearly 2,000 per day. That pace would mean an annual registration number in the neighborhood of 720,000 new UAV's per year. In fact, so many people are registering new drones that the FAA now believes it is quite possible that millions of drones could potentially be crowding America's national airspace system in the not-so-distant future.
The FAA Part 107 rules requiring all commercial drone operators to be licensed took effect about three weeks ago. Since then, 13,710 people have applied to take the pilot exam, and 5,080 of those have already successfully passed it to earn their airman certificate. Based on these figures, the FAA's projection of 15,000 licensed drone pilots by the end of 2016 should easily be exceeded.
The FAA now forecasts there will be more than 1.3 million licensed drone pilots by 2020.
NASA is working with industry and the FAA to create a new low-altitude air traffic control system specifically for drones. Industry and government officials say such a system will be needed if there are to eventually be widespread drone deliveries by Amazon and other companies. Google and the Chipotle Mexican restaurant chain are currently testing drone deliveries of burritos at Virginia Tech, and Dominos is also experimenting with UAV's for pizza delivery.
They aren't the only government agencies scrambling at this point. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now seeking technology providers who can help implement an sUAS monitoring system for cities and urban environments. "Commercial websites currently exist that display in real time the tracks of relatively high and fast aircraft—from small general aviation planes to large airliners—all overlaid on geographical maps as they fly around the country and the world," DARPA's program manager Jeff Krolik said. "We want a similar capability for identifying and tracking slower, low-flying unmanned aerial systems, particularly in urban environments."