FAA releases UAS data on sightings, 2020 forecast

By Patrick C. Miller | March 30, 2016

Sightings of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by pilots continue to increase while UAS sales are expected to more than double by 2020, according to information released by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA reported 582 incidents of possible UAS encounters by pilots, air traffic controllers and citizens between Aug. 22, 2015, and Jan. 31 this year. The agency also noted that by 2020, the combined number of commercial and hobbyist drones are expected to rise from 2.5 million in 2016 to 7 million in 2020.

"The FAA's market forecast is further proof UAS hold tremendous promise," said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). "However, until the agency puts in place a regulatory framework, starting with finalizing the small UAS rule, this technology and its great potential will never fully be realized." 

The FAA forecasts that sales of small hobbyist drones could grow from 1.9 million in 2016 to 4.3 million by 2020. Commercial drone sales could increase from 600,000 to 2.7 million over the next four years.

With drone ownership rapidly rising along with the number of UAS incidents reported, the FAA continues to emphasize its efforts on safety and education, such as the free B4UFLY app available for iOS and Android smartphones.

"We have a number of educational initiatives with our government and industry partners to teach drone operators how to fly safely, including the drone registry we launched last December," said Michael Huerta, FAA administrator. “But enforcement goes hand-in-hand with education, and we will take action against anyone who operates irresponsibly to the full extent of the law.”

The agency said that more than 406,000 people have registered their drones since the registry went live in late December. The FAA also noted that it continues to work closely with its industry partners through the "Know Before You Fly" campaign.

A preliminary analysis of the new data on UAS encounters by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College showed slightly more than a third of the incidents could be classed as “close encounters”—incidents that present a level of potential hazard.

“The rate of reported incidents continues to be higher than in previous years,” according to the analysis. “This period saw over three times as many incidents as the same period of the previous year.”

The center said there were 24 incidents in which drones reportedly came within 50 feet of a manned aircraft and 11 instances where aircraft made evasive maneuvers to avoid a drone. Sixty percent of the incidents were within five miles of an airport and 90 percent occurred above 400 feet, the analysis noted.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), last year criticized the FAA’s previous release of data on UAS encounters, saying the agency used “inflammatory terminology” and included reports of objects that weren’t drones.

This time, the hobbyist organization issued a statement calling for more analysis, but also saying that the agency had done a better job of more accurately characterizing drone sightings.

“An overall increase in the number of sightings of consumer drones is not surprising given FAA’s projections last fall of an influx of nearly a million new such devices by the end of 2015, and presumably many of these sightings constitute legitimate UAS activity,” the AMA said. “A more definitive analysis of the data is needed to separate out the lawful operations from those that pose a true safety concern.”

The AMA said it will closely review the FAA’s latest data on drone sightings and called on the agency to release not only its preliminary reports, but also “investigative findings and any other information associated with these reports.”


For more on the UAS Industry, follow us on Twitter @UASMagazine