Commercial Drones set to Take Flight

photo by Don McCullough via Flickr 

The buzz around commercial drones seems to amplify everyday. As the industry poises to take flight, manufacturers, companies, and operators, alike are scrambling to move towards their widespread usage.

Below are some current trends in commercial drone technologies and policies that may help us spell out the future for commercially available drones.

1. Projections are huge

Though civilian drones currently only make up 11 percent of today’s drone market (the other 89 percent being for military uses) that number is expected to dramatically increase in the coming decade. Predictions by intelligence analysts at The Teal Group estimate both gobal expenditures on both commercial and military drones ballooning to $91 billion. Additionally they predict that spending on commercial drones may shift from 12 to 14 percent in the next decade.

2. Legislation and current market size indicate expansion

A report (pdf) by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states that there are 50 companies, schools, and government organizations who are developing, in total, over 155 different drone designs–and that was in 2012.

Though newer estimates are not available, it’s likely that the 2012 numbers are much higher in 2014. The FAA projects that as many as 30,000 drones both military and commercial may be in flight by the end of the decade.

3. The number of FAA sanctioned drone operators is low

Despite recent legislation which has developed FAA drone operator guidelines indicating a shift towards drone proliferation, regulators have still been slow to issue licenses to many private sector companies.

Currently there are but eight total U.S. commercial drone operators licensed by the FAA. This number is in stark contrast with Europe which has a market encompassing hundreds of different companies and thousands of employees.

4. Six drone test sites have been authorized by the FAA

As a part of the FAA Reauthorization Act, the FAA has selected 6 different organizations nationwide which are located in varying climates in an effort to analyze the drones across a range of specific weather conditions. The organizations, sites, and specific fields of interest are as follows:

  • University of Alaska – development of standards for safety, state monitoring, and navigation


  • State of Nevada – developing operator standards and requirements as well as air traffic guidelines
  • New York Griffiss International Airport –  verification and validation guidelines for licensing drone operators
  • North Dakota Department of Commerce – development of drone tracking data which will help verify drones’ “airworthiness”  
  • Texas A&M – developing safety requirements for unmanned vehicles
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – helping evaluate risk areas and failure avoidance

These institutions may very well be the genesis of the safety and regulatory guidelines necessary to moving commercial drones forward.

5. Despite projections, commercial drones have a long way to go

Though expansion of commercial drones seems all but imminent, regulators have sidelined the widespread usage of such unmanned vehicles for now.

Citing lack of safety regulations, the FAA has been hesitant to give into the expedient approval which manufacturers and operators have lobbied in favor of.  In a Wall Street Journal report, FAA administrator John Hickey states, “We will not allow [drones] to come into the system until we are completely sure they are safe.”

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James Pero