Drones have moved from high-tech specialized equipment used primarily by the military and commercial photographers to more common uses at a rapid pace, said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, at the second annual Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Symposium on March 27.
The online drone registry has received 770,000 registrations in a little over 15 months, he added in prepared remarks opening the symposium.
According to Recode, that’s an increase of 100,000 in the past three months alone. Recode also noted that at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Huerta said the agency had recorded 670,000 drone registrations at that time.
Describing the state of the drone industry today, Huerta added, “If you can dream it, drone manufacturers are building it. Some of the latest models can sense and avoid obstacles in their paths. Others can fit in your pocket, or be used under water. A few have even automated the ‘selfie’ game.” In good news for the insurance industry and first responders, he observed that Helicopter Association International has even started a special drone membership. “Many in that industry have even begun looking at ways that drones can augment the tasks they do with helicopters, particularly in cases where drones can accomplish a task without putting human lives at risk.”
What the numbers mean
As explained by CNN, although the 770,000 figure has often been reported as the number of drone owners, the breakdown is a bit more complicated. Individual “hobbyists” receive just one ID number for all the drones they own, while anyone other than hobbyists -- which primarily consists of commercial users -- must register each drone separately.
Huerta noted that since the final rule allowing people to fly unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes under specific conditions was promulgated, the FAA has issued more than 37,000 remote pilot certificates. “The B4UFLY app, which we created to let people know where it’s safe and legal to fly a drone, has been downloaded more than 200,000 times,” he added.
But “This was the easy stuff,” Huerta said in his speech. “As we move toward fully integrating unmanned aircraft into our airspace, the questions we need to answer are only getting more complicated.” He then listed several of the challenges:
- What happens to people on the ground if a drone flying overhead fails?
- How can we make sure unmanned aircraft don’t gain access to sensitive sites?
- After seeing how drones can be used for ill intent overseas, how can we ensure similar incidents don’t happen in the U.S.?
A combined effort
Huerta acknowledged that “These aren’t questions the FAA can or should answer alone.” He announced that the FAA is launching a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee composed of aviation, tech, law enforcement, and safety personnel to help create standards for identifying and tracking unmanned aircraft. The agency has also formed two other industry-led groups: the Drone Advisory Committee and the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team.
Technology can solve some of the safety and security challenges the country is facing, Huerta said in his remarks. For example, the FAA is already working with industry to test tools that can detect unauthorized drone operations near airports and other critical infrastructure.
“The way I see it, the more problems industry can solve itself using technology, the better. You’re going to do it more quickly and efficiently than the FAA ever could through regulations,” Huerta admitted.
Related: 10 risks and misuses for drones