Each year, the FAA publishes their FAA Aerospace Forecast. The latest was published this year reflecting the actual number of Drone Pilot licenses at 20,362 certificates issued as of Dec 31, 2016.
A few years ago, the FAA did not think the commercial drone industry would have any momentum and took a pessimistic outlook thinking commercial drone industry would not even begin until 2018, according to the 2010 forecast. Since then, they published the long anticipated FAR 107, which established the rules for commercial drones. Not surprisingly, they now acknowledge the tremendous growth potential in the most recent forecast.
So what does their crystal ball say? How did they do their forecast? How accurate is it?
The FAA forecast starts with an estimate of the number of drones to be registered. In 2016, which is the baseline number, 42,000 drones were registered. They expect a ten fold increase in registrations by 2021, bringing the number of registered drones to 420,000.
The way they then guess at the number of remote pilots will be operating these aircraft, they presume a ratio of drones to pilots.
For 2016, the baseline is the actual number of pilot certificates issued which is 20,360.
Looking at the most conservative estimate of 2 UAS per Pilot (2:1 ratio), the estimated number of certificate holders is forecast to grow to about 50,000 by the end of 2017 and then to more than 200,000 by 2021.
This number more closer to reality than the 1:1 ratio that suggests 500,000 new drone pilots by 2021. This is because it is a bit unrealistic to think that each commercial operator will only have one aircraft. A true professional would not dare show up for a job with only one aircraft. Any experienced photographer for example, will show up to a wedding with a couple of cameras because he/she needs to be able to quickly adapt to changing conditions each requiring maybe a different lens or preset configuration.
The professional drone pilot is no different. You will want to show up with a multiple of drones to ensure mission success. Therefore, the methodology of the FAA is a bit suspect.
However, the FAA forecast is useful in that it gives us a reasonable glimpse at the trends regarding the growth of this industry. Whether the actual number of drone pilot certificates reach 200,000 by 2021, is not as important as the trend shows that more drone pilots will need become licensed and the actual number will be directly related to the number of drones sold. In this case, the number of pilots will follow the number of drones sold to a certain point.