(TNS) -- More than 7 million small unmanned aircraft are predicted to fly off U.S. store shelves or arrive on doorsteps by 2020, according to a forecast released Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In its Aerospace Forecast for fiscal years 2016 to 2036, the agency said 2.5 million of those sales could take place this year.
Small unmanned aircraft, typically considered models weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds, are gaining traction with hobbyists and operators in numerous industries. By 2020, the FAA predicts hobbyists will be flying 4.3 million aircraft, while commercial users will be operating 2.7 million of the units sold.
The forecast precedes the publication of regulations for operating small unmanned aircraft in the national airspace expected from the FAA later this spring.
"The number of small UAS forecasted is highly uncertain and is dependent on the regulatory structure ultimately adopted," the report said. "Once a final rule for small UAS is published, they will become more commercially viable than they are today."
Utilizing unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, for commercial operations is illegal unless an exemption is obtained from the FAA. More than 4,100 exemptions have been issued by the agency. A Herald analysis of exemption data shows at least 10 of those have been granted to companies based in North Dakota.
In its forecast, the FAA has predicted industrial inspection could be the top market for small UAS use, with agricultural, insurance, aerial photography and government markets falling in line behind it.
Among the companies granted an exemption in North Dakota, nearly all list aerial photography among their requested uses submitted in their petitions for exemptions, and four also list inspection work.
Making the technology commercially viable for some industries will require another set of authorizations from the FAA that the agency isn't ready to hand out just yet—flight beyond the line of visual sight.
"The overall demand for commercial UAS will soar once regulations more easily enable beyond visual line of sight operations and operations of multiple (unmanned aircraft) by a single pilot," the report said.
As part of its forecast release, the FAA worked with the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense analytics firm, to develop predictions specifically for the small drone commercial market.
Those include the emergence of low- and high-end aircraft. Low-end models would be categorized as having an average price of $2,500 per aircraft, while high-end units would see average prices of $40,000—more expensive than some new cars.
Meanwhile, the FAA also is working on its UAS Focus Area Pathfinders Initiative, which seeks to explore how drones could be used safely in populated areas and flights beyond line of sight in rural areas.
©2016 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.