Unmanned Aircraft Systems – New Forecast Data From the FAA

Last week the FAA announced their Aerospace Forecasts for 2017-2037, which includes update forecasts for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

You can read the full set of forecasts as a PDF here.

This blog post is a recap of the most important data for commercial drone operators. All data is current as of April 2017.

Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate

In June 2016, the FAA issued the small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) Rule (14 CFR Part 107) which took effect August 29, 2016.

This rule set provided a regulatory structure for the routine operation of small UAS for commercial purposes.

Based on trends and expert opinions, the FAA forecasts that the amount of Remote Pilots (those with the Remote Pilot Certificate with sUAS Rating) will likely grow to 420,000 by 2021.

This compares to 29,000 Remote Pilot Certificates that have been issued as of December 2016. This means there is huge projected growth in the volume of commercially certified pilots over the next 4 years.

The estimated growth of the number of Remote Pilots between 2016-2021.

As of February 2017, over 90% of individuals who took the remote pilot knowledge test had passed. This pass rate is only slightly higher than the private pilot test (~87%).

What does this mean for those thinking about becoming a Remote Pilot? Plan to take and pass the test ASAP!

Right now, there is barely any competition for commercial jobs. But within the next four years, the amount of certified operators will likely increase 10x fold!

Present Uses of Commercial sUAS

Major applications of small UAS commercial uses. Many of the sUAS have multiple uses, hence why the chart percentages exceed 100%.

We see with this data the vast majority of sUAS uses are for aerial photography and real estate.

This gives a fair assessment of where most drone operators have been focused on with their businesses, and where the opportunities for growth are.

Top 5 Waiver Requests

There are many operating restrictions under Part 107, however, waivers can be applied for and requested.

Below is the breakdown for the top 5 waiver requests received by the FAA. The percentage of the chart exceeds 100% because of multiple requests at the same time.

We see here that the highest requested waiver is for night operations. Looking on the waivers that have been issued, we see that no waivers for Operations Over People have been granted yet (as of April 2017).

Note: this list only includes waiver requests, and does not include requests for fly within controlled airspace (such as Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E from the surface).

Airspace Waiver/Authorizations

This data shows the breakdown of 6,835 airspace waiver/authorization requests. There is no data depicting the “issue rate” or “denial rate” of these requests.

The vast majority of requests (3,397 of 6,835) are for operations within Class D airspace (i.e. smaller airports with control towers).

What Does This Mean For Your Commercial Operations?

The FAA is slowly approving waiver requests, so you can start planning to do operations that require a special authorization. Currently there is a 90 day window from request to authorization.

To apply for a waiver, you must do so on the FAA website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver/

The process is fairly straightforward.

I recently received an authorization for operating in a Class D airspace, which I’ll be going over a step-by-step in a future post.

What I learned was how specific you need to be with everything – from the time window of the operations, to the GPS coordinate, to the altitude.

I predict in the future the FAA will streamline the waiver request process to be near instant (not 3 months), but we’ll see on that!

What The CEO Of DroneDeploy Taught Me

“Well, you should start with what you know.” said Mike Winn, the CEO of Drone Deploy.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

Of course. It’s extremely simple and makes so much sense. A bit more on that later.

We had been standing in line to grab barbecue ribs at the 1st annual Drone Deploy Conference.

What is Drone Deploy?

If you haven’t heard about Drone Deploy, they’re a software startup based out of San Francisco that has software to fly your drone, collect collect images, then generate orthomosaics, 3D models, and terrain models.

The three areas Drone Deploy software works.
How the Drone Deploy works. (Source: www.dronedeploy.com)

November 3rd, 2016 was a user conference in their office, with speakers in a variety of industries (agriculture, surveying, construction, and service providers).

There were over 80 in attendance, not including the 20+ Drone Deploy employees helping and leading the event.

Conference in the Drone Deploy offices in downtown SF (November 2016).
Conference in the Drone Deploy offices in downtown SF (November 2016).

Industry Breakout Deep Dives

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely a “service provider”. That means you don’t have any particular experience in one of the big industries that are currently using drones:

  • construction
  • agriculture
  • surveying

These industries have already been using drones to replace expensive, time-consuming, or unsafe manned operations.

In particular, the construction and agriculture industries are highlighted to be responsible for over $23 billion in market opportunities over the next 4 years (Goldman Sachs).

Construction and agriculture projected to be 74% of the $23+ billion commercial drone industry over the next 4 years. (Source: Goldman Sachs)
Construction and agriculture projected to be 74% of the $23+ billion commercial drone industry over the next 4 years. (Source: Goldman Sachs)

To put that in perspective, those two industries alone are predicted to account for nearly 74% of the commercial opportunities over that same time span.

That brings us to our first lesson.

Lesson 1: Drones to Solve Problems Industries Already Pay For

As someone who is absolutely excited about the possibilities in the drone space, I needed to take a step back.

See, I have been thinking about how to use drones as a side-income for me. Something on the weekends, and maybe make an extra $500-$1,000 per month.

But I’ve been more focused on ME. And more importantly, how I can apply drones TO an industry.

Really though, it should be how drones can substitute tasks that industries already pay for.

Drones are just like any other new technology that disrupts industries. They are tools to reduce costs companies already have.

Software is the best example of this: everything from email (snail mail) to payroll (pad, paper, and countless hours) have been made more accessible and cheaper for companies.

Drones are just like that.

So instead of thinking up a “brand new way drones can be used”, the approach should be how can drones be used to solve problems that already exist.

This type of thinking was was a huge shift for me during the conference.

Which leads us to the second lesson I learned.

Lesson 2: Pick and Industry and Become an Expert

We had a group of about 25 people in our “deep dive” discussing service providers.

Essentially it was a group who are enthusiastic about drones and the technology, but have no real idea where we can apply it and make money.

Understanding the problems of an industry can be very complex. Knowing what deliverables a drone can provide that saves a company a 5x return on cost is also difficult.

For an industry outsider.

That’s where the advice from the Drone Deploy CEO comes in: start with what you know.

There’s a reason most new drone operators decide to do real estate videos and photos: it’s simple to understand.

Drone real estate videography and photography are simple to understand. (Photo source: https://droneandquadcopter.com)
Drone real estate videography and photography are simple to understand. (Photo source: https://droneandquadcopter.com)

From the surface, the problem (showcasing the area and uniqueness of a property) and the deliverables (short video and photos) are as straight forward as they get. Additionally, who you need to talk to (real estate agents) makes sense.

That’s not the case with these other big industries.

Do you know who would be responsible on a construction site for approving drone operations? What is a drone service deliverable for a construction site anyway?

That’s why almost everyone flocks to real estate. Understanding.

The advice to start with what you know makes a lot of sense for me: I was a project engineer designing photovoltaic systems for residential properties in Hawaii for over 1.5 years.

I have a good idea of how drones can be applied (surveying, thermal inspections), but more importantly I have an understanding of the industry. And connections to talk with companies to learn more about the problems they face.

Thermal image of a ground-mounted solar farm (source http://adtsgroup.com/).
Thermal image of a ground-mounted solar farm (source http://adtsgroup.com/).

Think about your background. Think about your network. What knowledge do you already possess? Who do you know that you can ask about their industry?

Next Steps

So what should you do next?

  1. Brainstorm industries you already know
  2. Run through your network and begin asking questions about the biggest problems they face in their industries, and how drones could be used.
  3. Reach out to companies in your local area (construction, agriculture, survey, and inspection)  to being asking these questions of industry professionals.

In conclusion, we are at the forefront of the coming tidal wave of drone technology, and it’s important to find your niche.

Countless other people have the same question you have (“what industries should I choose to offer drone services”).

And we’re all trying to figure it out!