According to an audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made progress on its goal of safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System, but if the FAA waits until late 2016 or early 2017 to publish the final rules for operations, other countries' rules will continue flourishing.
In its review, conducted January 2014 to July 2015, GAO addressed the FAA's progress on integration, research and development support from the six FAA test sites and other resources, and how other countries have progressed toward the same UAS integration goal.
To do this, GAO says, it analyzed the FAA's integration-planning documents; interviewed officials from the FAA and UAS industry stakeholders; and met with civil aviation authorities from Australia, Canada, France and the U.K.
GAO says the report stems from Congress members’ bringing up safety concerns – considering the increased operations of UAS – and asking for an examination of the FAA’s progress. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the agency to take actions to safely integrate UAS into national airspace, and the FAA then developed a phased approach to facilitate integration and established test sites and a UAS Center of Excellence (among other things), the report says.
The report says the tets sites, which have conducted over 195 flights as of March, had to address various challenges in the first year of operations, including requesting FAA guidance for specific types of research to conduct
According to the FAA, GAO says, it cannot direct the test sites, which receive no federal funding, to conduct specific research. However, the FAA did provide a list of potential research areas to provide some guidance on areas for research.
In the report, GAO notes that in late 2013, the FAA issued the UAS Comprehensive Plan and UAS Integration Roadmap, which offer broad integration plans but are not detailed enough and do not predict with any certainty when full integration will occur and what resources will be needed, GAO says, adding that the FAA is still working with MITRE to develop a foundation for an implementation plan – which is expected to be published by December of this year.
GAO’s report says that although the FAA is still approving UAS operations on a case-by-case basis, the number of approvals has increased every year since 2010, including the first commercial approvals in the past year.
Although the FAA did release its proposed rules for small commercial UAS in February, GAO points out that the countries it examined in the audit already have well established regulations and that Canada and France have approved more commercial operations than the U.S. has.
Even though the U.S. has not finalized its UAS regulations, the audit says, the provisions of the FAA’s rules are similar to those of the other countries examined in the report.
However, GAO says, the FAA may not issue the final rules until late 2016 or early 2017, and rules in some of these other countries will continue to evolve. (Note: During a June hearing from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator of the FAA, said the FAA plans to publish the final rules within one year’s time.)
Meanwhile, unlike under the FAA's proposed rules, Canada has created exemptions for the commercial use of small UAS in two categories to allow operations without a government-issued certification, and France and Australia are approving limited beyond line-of-sight operations.
However, GAO notes that, like the U.S., other countries are also facing technology shortfalls, such as the ability to detect and avoid other aircraft and obstacles.
According to the report, the FAA has said it needs time to process the large number of public comments received on the proposed rules – over 4,500 of them – before it can issue the final rules but that it has a team of employees assigned specifically to lead the effort.
GAO says it did not address environmental factors in the audit.
The full report can be accessed here.