The size of the commercial drone fleet should jump more than tenfold over the next five years, to about 442,000, and could go much higher, the Federal Aviation Administration says.

FAA’s latest annual Aerospace Forecast report, released on March 21, for the first time covers drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). It says that there is an “upside possibility” that the number of commercial drones could rise to 1.6 million by 2021.

The report has three commercial UAS forecasts: the low estimate is 238,000 in 2021; the “base” forecast is 422,000 and the high forecast is 1,616.000.

The agency also projects that the small model hobbyist UAS total will exceed 3.5 million by 2021, more than triple the estimated yearend 2016 total of 1.1 million.

Aerial photography is the largest application of small commercial drones, with 34% of total uses. The construction, industrial and utility inspection category and real estate are tied for second place, at 26%. Agriculture is next, with 21%. FAA notes that many of the aircraft have more than one application; thus, the percentages exceed 100%.

The agency says that more than 95% of the commercial, small UAS fleet is “consumer trade, off-the-shelf aircraft” and it expects that segment to account for more than 90% of the small commercial UAS category.

But the report adds that “the higher-end, bigger, professional grade fleet stands to expand rapidly over time, especially as newer and more sophisticated uses are devised.” 

FAA issued its first commercial-drone regulation last June. It applies to UAS that weigh less than 55 lbs., and contains several restrictions on their use. For example, drone pilots must keep the aircraft within the visual line of sight and night flights are prohibited. FAA has granted waivers from the regulation’s restrictions.

Looking at commercial aviation, FAA projects that total revenue passenger miles will rise 2.4% annually from 2017 to 2037. It also estimates enplanements will reach 1.23 billion in 2037, from 819.6 million in 2016, with an average annual increase of 1.9%.

The report said domestic enplanements on mainline and regional carriers climbed 4.3 % last year, to 726.2 million. International enplanements increased 3.6%, to 93.4 million.