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Here’s Where Commercial Drones Are Most Likely Buzzing Overhead

April 13, 2016, 6:16 PM UTC
A pilot flies a Phantom drone by DJI company at the 4th Intergalactic Meeting of Phantom's Pilots in an open secure area in the Bois de Boulogne, western Paris
A pilot flies a Phantom drone by DJI company at the 4th Intergalactic Meeting of Phantom's Pilots (MIPP) in an open secure area in the Bois de Boulogne, western Paris, March 16, 2014. Drone operators in France are required to complete a training course to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle and also receive written approval for flights in urban areas. Picture taken March 16, 2014. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - RTR3HM2J
Charles Platiau—Reuters

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued more than 3,100 commercial drone permits to companies wanting to perform everything from aerial photography to site security to power line inspection (but not package delivery—sorry, Amazon). Drone operators are now cleared to fly commercially in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico.

So where are all the commercial drones?

According to robotics industry trade group AUVSI, they’re everywhere. An analysis of the first 3,136 so-called Section 333 exemptions awarded by the FAA shows that every U.S. state is home to multiple companies now cleared to fly commercial drones. If you haven’t seen one, it’s likely because they’re being used by very small companies for fairly specific purposes. And if you do see one, there’s an overwhelming likelihood that it was made in China.

According to AUVSI—that’s the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International—nearly a third of U.S. commercial drone permits are concentrated in California (360), Florida (328), and Texas (268), with the rest spread across the remaining 47 states (Illinois is the only other state in the triple-digits, with 104 permits). Each of those top three states is both large and populous, and each is already home to a sizable aerospace industry. But the reason commercial drones seem to be coalescing where they are likely has just as much to do with the various ways companies now use drones.

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According to the data, companies typically use drones for various flavors of aerial photography, whether for real estate appraisal, surveying construction sites, inspecting power lines, or monitoring farms. As such, specific industries like construction and mining are helping to drive commercial drone use in specific places. Drone assisted filmmaking, for instance, has helped drive California’s commercial drone dominance (alongside the presence of several drone-related startups in Silicon Valley).

Oil and gas companies and have also been early adopters of the technology because it gives them quick, on-demand eyes-in-the-sky over drilling sites and heavy equipment at significantly lower costs than hiring a manned helicopter. Agencies and companies engaged in any kind of environmental monitoring are also big drone users.

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But far more interesting than the “where” and “how” is the “who.” Though corporate titans like Amazon (AMZN) and Google (GOOG) continue pushing their visions for package delivery drones and the like, large companies have yet to embrace commercial drones the way many predicted they would—most likely out of an abundance of caution. While that’s likely to change later this year when the FAA releases a more comprehensive set of commercial drone regulations, for now small businesses hold 90% of all Section 333 exemptions. The vast majority of those have fewer than 10 employees (a significant number have just one employee) and take in less than $1 million a year.

One company that is cashing in on the U.S. commercial drone industry: Shenzhen-based DJI Technologies. DJI controls something like two-thirds of the global consumer drone market, and if you do happen to see a commercial drone in the sky there’s a strong chance it’s going to be a DJI product as well. DJI drones account for 65% of the hardware referenced in the first 3,136 Section 333 exemptions, suggesting the ubiquitous white drones are the commercial drone industry’s aircraft of choice as well.