Drones have been added to the FAA 20-year activity forecast, and their addition brings a divergent and contrasting trend to a set of predictions that have general aviation flying more hours in a smaller fleet of newer aircraft, with fewer pilots.
Remote pilots certificated under Part 107, which took effect at the end of August, are expected to surge, surpassing private pilots in number as early as 2018, but no later than 2020 by the FAA’s most conservative estimate, depending on the pace of the increase. With many unknowns to cope with and assumptions made to develop the annual forecast, the FAA projected three possible scenarios for the growth of the remote pilot population, as well as for the growth in the drones they fly. In the most drone-heavy scenario, remote pilots with Part 107 certificates could outnumber all manned aircraft pilots by 2021.
“The long term outlook for general aviation is stable to optimistic, as growth at the high end offsets continuing retirements at the traditional low end of the segment,” the FAA forecast states, noting the overall general aviation fleet is expected to grow by 3,400 aircraft over 20 years, with increases in newer and more expensive turbine aircraft offsetting the expected decline in piston airplanes.
Drones flown for recreation already far outnumber the GA fleet, with an estimated 1.1 million of these smaller aircraft now in use, compared to an estimated total GA fleet of 209,905 including all aircraft types. The number of hobby drones is expected to grow between 150 percent and 300 percent by 2021, with as many as 4.5 million hobby drones in use by then.
The increase in the commercial unmanned aircraft fleet is expected to be much larger, from about 42,000 currently registered to as many as 1.6 million by 2021, the high estimate for that segment; the FAA actual prediction calls for 442,000 commercial drones to be in the service by 2021; and the agency’s low estimate is 238,000 commercial drones to be in service by 2021. The huge disparity reflects the uncertainty faced by this fast-emerging market that will depend on regulatory changes to realize the higher end of its potential, the agency noted.
The FAA predicts that GA piston hours flown will decline in the coming decades, while turbine hours flown will increase to offset the piston decline. In 2016, GA piston aircraft (including helicopters) flew an estimated 13.6 million hours, and GA turbine aircraft 9.3 million. GA turbine hours flown are predicted to surpass GA piston hours flown for the first time in 2027; by 2037, the FAA forecast calls for 11.87 million piston hours and 15.3 million turbine hours, thanks to average annual growth rates in turbine hours flown ranging from 1.9 percent to 3.7 percent, while piston hours are expected to steadily decline at rates ranging from 0.6 percent to 1.4 percent per year.
By 2021, the FAA expects the GA piston fleet will decline 4 percent from the current total of 138,210 aircraft, while turbine aircraft will increase by 7 percent, from 30,595 aircraft to 32,610.