Flights of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are likely to outstrip those of manned commercial aircraft in the United States by 2035, with projections calling for expanded UAS roles in new areas such as the transportation of cargo, package delivery and flight crew augmentation.
Those roles, however, will only be possible after the industry deals with numerous challenges, including crowded skies and other safety concerns; regulatory and policy issues; privacy and related social considerations; and environmental issues such as noise and emissions.
A collection of reports issued in recent months by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) describe the tasks likely to be taken on by UAS and the challenges that the industry must overcome.1,2,3
Historically, UAS have been military aircraft, used primarily in war zones and in restricted airspace, and U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) data indicate that, by 2035, the armed forces expect to have 14,000 UAS, along with 5,000 additional aircraft equipped with UAS technology that will allow for “pilot augmentation or optional pilot replacement.” Unmanned aircraft will represent 70 percent of the U.S. military’s fleet in 2035, up from 25 percent today, the Volpe report said.
The report forecast an even more sweeping expansion in non-military use of UAS by federal, state and local governments (Figure 1).
Today, federal agencies — including the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) — operate about 125 UAS. As the FAA resolves its existing regulatory challenges within the coming months, other federal agencies — including those within the Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce and Department of Energy — will begin acquiring UAS, pushing the federal fleet to about 10,000 by 2035.
By 2015, U.S. states and territories probably will operate a few hundred UAS, but those numbers will expand to 10,000 by 2035, and municipalities — especially their police departments and other first responders — will add about 34,000.
The greatest surge in UAS numbers, however, is forecast in the commercial market, which by 2035 is expected to be fielding 175,000 unmanned aircraft.
“The majority of these vehicles will be low-cost and dedicated to specific new and emerging tactical market applications,” the Volpe report said. “The source of supply of these vehicles will come initially from the radio controlled (RC) type vehicle makers, as opposed to the suppliers of DoD and public agency aircraft. After an initial surge or upswing in commercial sales, reduced growth is expected, as needs for early adopters and innovators are met. As UAS usage becomes more mainstream, DoD suppliers are expected to seriously enter the commercial market, which will encourage changes in business models … . These changes should again accelerate market growth through 2035.”
Many of these public and commercial unmanned aircraft will be among the smallest UAS vehicles — from the nano, micro and small categories — weighing anywhere from less than 1 lb (0.5 kg) to 55 lb (25 kg, see “UAS Categories,” p. 36).