Bloomberg published an excellent overview of the state of drone regulation in the US. The article provides a good sense of the pressure that exists on one side to restrict the use of civilian drones and the other side’s arguments for easing regulation.
As the regulation is currently crafted, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) believes that their rules restrict operating drones to hobbyists. Flying drones for commercial purposes is not allowed, they have stated on numerous occasions. At the moment, the FAA seems to be busy working on the model for future regulation while writing polite letters to those who use flying cameras in connection with a business. (Such as when Lakemaid, a small brewery, published a spoof video of a drone carrying a case of beer to thirsty fishermen on a frozen lake. Show me a hexacopter capable of a 12 bottle payload and that’s a hexacopter I would want.)
When Amazon filmed their PrimeAir delivery video, they staged the flight scenes outside of the United States to avoid the legal grey zone. For others, the benefits of using drones commercially are just too attractive. Filmmakers, farmers, photographers, real estate agents, advertising agencies, oilfield operators.. the list gets longer every day. A year ago, the FAA estimated that 10,000 drones might operate commercially in the US by 2020. Later in 2013, the estimate was revised to 7,500 drones in a shorter time frame. I imagine that the reason the number seems so low is that the FAA is only considering licenses that they issue. I have seen numbers that there a currently a few hundred licenses for commercial operation of drones. If getting a license is going to be hard, the numbers will stay low, so to a certain degree the FAA has a big influence on the numbers.
What they don’t influence, however, is unlicensed use of drones. Hobbyists and unlicensed commercial use of drones in the US today probably number in the tens of thousands. That’s my own guesstimate but I would be interested in anybody who has more official stats on this. (Consider the DJI Phantom.. the Android app for that quadcopter model has been installed between 10,000 and 15,000 times. Granted, that number is global but it represents just one hobby drone model and just the Android version [I don’t seem to be able to find install counts on Apple’s AppStore].)
Until the rules are clarified, it’s best to go with the FAA’s recommendations if you want to stay out of trouble, although to date only one person in the US has been slapped with a fine for flying a drone and that case has still to be decided. The rules were originally crafted for remote control model aircraft: Stay below 400 feet above ground level (120 meters) and keep ample distance to airports and air traffic. (I am building a more comprehensive overview of regulation.) Happy flying!