A drone capturing footage and still images of an apartment building in Philadelphia, 2016.
Photo: Matt Rourke (AP)

After an explosive increase in commercial drone registrations in 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration has revised its predictions for the sector and now expects it to triple in size by the year 2023, according to NextGov.

According to NextGov, the FAA was caught off guard when commercial drone operators registered over 175,000 drones in 2018, showing they “dramatically underestimated” how popular the technology would be. Though agency officials still expect growth to taper off over time, NextGov wrote, the surge in drones forced them to revise their numbers:

Last year alone, commercial drone operators registered more than 175,000 new aircraft with the FAA, increasing the total number of commercial drones in use across the U.S. by more than 170 percent, according to the administration’s annual aerospace forecast. The surge in registrations, which expanded the commercial drone market to 277,000 units, “far exceed[ed]” the 44 percent growth officials predicted at the beginning of the year.

... Last year, the administration predicted there would be roughly 452,000 commercial drones in use by 2022, but now it expects the industry to hit that size around the beginning of next year. Based on the latest data, FAA predicts the commercial drone market will triple over the next five years, hitting 835,000 aircraft by 2023.

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NextGov added that one key factor appears to have been advancements in “consumer-grade” drones that cost under $10,000, making commercial adoption of those units for purposes like “research, pilot training, filming, building inspection and a slew of other professional activities” more feasible. Recreational drones still far outnumber commercial ones at an estimated 1.25 million in use, but proportionally aren’t expected to grow as quickly, with the FAA projecting 1.4 million in use by 2023.

The FAA also predicted that drones will become more useful for a variety of commercial purposes over the coming years, writing that as they become “operationally more efficient and safe, battery life expands and integration continues, new business models will begin to develop.” While the report noted it is “impossible” to predict with any certainty how much demand will exist for those services—say, package delivery by drone—that 835,000 number is their best guess, with anywhere between 603,000 and 1.29 million commercial drones possible on the low and high ranges respectively.

Numerous companies have touted ways to cash in on the drone market, including Amazon’s wildly speculative patents for flying warehouses, nightmarish jellyfish-like machines that deliver packages, and drones that self-destruct before they hit the ground to reduce the risk of decapitating someone. However, Amazon has been touting this idea for years without many signs that it is becoming a mass-market reality (Google’s parent company Alphabet appears to be somewhat closer), with even ground-based variants like its Amazon Scout likely to experience daunting technical hurdles. The FAA’s report shows that whether or not the flashiest applications of aerial drones get off the pad soon, however, more practical uses are still bound to fuel the expansion of the market.

[NextGov]

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