Who’s Doing What with Drones?

The Eno’s Aviation Working Group recently completed the initial phase of a project to develop policy recommendations for safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS). As a first step, we analyzed how people employ UAS and how existing regulatory structures align with their use. What we found so far might surprise you.

Our methodology involved personal interviews, online surveys, and examination of regulatory filings. Using the data, we developed insights into the organizations flying UAS, how these aircraft are used, and the role played by regulations. We believe such basic understandings serve as the foundation for collaboration between industry and government, as both work to build structures to ensure UAS can be operated with the highest level of safety.

The relationship between the UAS operator and regulation assumes even more importance today as this fledgling industry takes off. Neither operators nor regulators can point back to UAS specific historical compendiums of aeronautical knowledge, data on equipment reliability, nor shared safety protocols. The lack of which add to the difficulty of developing a common starting point for collaboration. Further, as operators seek to employ UAS for complex and often autonomous operations, incompatibilities between manned and unmanned rules often get magnified. What did our data show?

Separating users into the two distinct categories reflected in current UAS regulations, operators of vehicles under 55 lbs. and those over 55 lbs. different primary uses emerge. Operators of smaller vehicles engaged mostly in photography (40 percent), inspection services (36 percent), and flight testing (33 percent). While operators of the larger vehicles use them for agriculture (38 percent) and carrying various heavier weight payloads (29 percent, often for cinematography equipment). Commercial package delivery (7 percent) and flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) (5 percent) trailed the field.

As of November 2019, the FAA’s UAS snapshot shows that 1.5 million have been registered in the US and of these 416,000 are for commercial purposes. As we developed an industry profile of commercial UAS operators (under 55 lbs.) we found that 49 percent are companies with under $100,000 in yearly revenue and the large majority of companies (65 percent) have annual revenue under $1 million.

Companies were asked: “Over the next 5 years, do you expect your company’s use of UAS systems to increase or decrease the size of the company? If so, by how many employees?” In the aggregate, the data shows 59 percent of companies believe UAS will lead to growth in employment. This breaks down as Net Zero (35 percent), gain of 5 percent employees (27 percent) and gain of 10 percent or more (33 percent).

The personal interviews with UAS industry leaders round out what we found. Companies employing UAS tend to be largely from outside the world of aviation. As a result, they are unfamiliar with the traditional tenants of safety oversight and aviation best practices. They have not had to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Yet, these companies are eager to demonstrate compliance and operate their vehicles safely. As a result, they tend to heavily rely on UAS application instructions from the FAA, safety explanation guidelines, and FAA feedback.

Next week, we will examine the data on the intersection of UAS operations and regulations.

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