A study by aviation experts says the number of non-military drones will grow very quickly over the next 10 years, as investment soars and capability improves. Drones are unmanned aircraft, remotely controlled by a person on the ground, rather than a pilot on board the vehicle.
The Teal Group says around $2.8 billion will be spent on non-military drones globally this year, growing to $11.8 billion by 2026. The report says easing airspace regulations, major investment, and work by major technology companies means the civil drone market is ready "to take off." While many drones are used by hobbyists, commercial drones are the fastest growing part of this market.
Commercial drones are used for aerial photography in real estate, university research, and for shooting Hollywood movies. Farmers use drones to get a perspective on which parts of their fields are short of water or fertilizer, and use other unmanned aircraft to spray chemicals. Construction and utility companies use unmanned aircraft for inspections, and some companies are working on solar-powered high-altitude drones that can park in the sky and serve as platforms for internet services in undeserved areas.
Drones cost less to operate than manned aircraft, and that is why some traditional aviation tasks as well as some new kinds of work are opening up to these vehicles. Drones are cheaper because they are usually smaller than traditional planes and cost far less to buy, maintain and fuel.
It takes less time and money to train people to operate drones. Flight instructors say it takes many months and tens of thousands of dollars to earn a license to operate manned aircraft for pay.
Alan Perlman, founder of Drone Pilot Ground School, said a commercial drone operator can earn a credential for a few hundred dollars in a few days. Perlman's company trains new operators, and he told VOA that there are probably more than 40,000 licensed commercial drone pilots in the United States. Based on enrollment in his school, he thinks the number is growing rapidly.
In the United States, traditional manned aircraft are flown by more than 250,000 professional pilots, including both commercial and airline pilots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The government's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs flying manned aircraft will grow about 5 percent annually over the next decade. The FAA says it does not have studies under way to examine the impact of drones on employment.
Press reports say airline traffic is growing and increasing the demand for the highly trained and experienced pilots who fly airline passenger planes. Some stories describe a global shortage of these experienced pilots as demand grows for air travel, particularly in Asia.
It may be a different story for commercial pilots who fly manned aircraft for aerial photography or to spray chemicals on farmers' fields. Drones have already been used for some of those activities, and as these devices become more capable, they may expand their reach. Government experts at the BLS are working to update the outlook for these and other kinds of jobs, but those studies will not be published until October.