Though recognizing the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) continuous steps to advance the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into national airspace, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) says in a newly released audit that the FAA is still, however, taking a “reactive approach to UAS oversight.”
In terms of “education and outreach,” the OIG’s report states, the FAA “has taken steps to identify and detect UAS operations and increase awareness among operators, such as requiring them to register their aircraft and pursuing technology to detect UAS operating near airports.”
“However,” the audit says, “the agency has taken action primarily after incidents occur. As a result, FAA is currently restricted to a reactive approach to UAS oversight, rather than proactively identifying and mitigating risks.”
The OIG says it conducted the audit in response to the “significant and complex challenges” of integrating drones into airspace, as well as the ever-increasing use of the technology.
The audit, released on Dec. 1, is entitled “FAA Lacks A Risk-Based Oversight Process For Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems” and was conducted between October 2015 and October 2016.
The OIG claims that the agency still does not have a “fully developed risk-based process to oversee UAS operations” and focuses more on “education rather than enforcement.”
For instance, the report says, the FAA has not established an “automated data and reporting tracking system for current UAS activity” or a “centralized database for reporting and classifying UAS incidents.”
“Additionally, aviation safety inspectors have not received sufficient guidance and training on UAS oversight, and FAA oversight offices receive limited information regarding operators in their jurisdiction – hindering their ability to proactively oversee operators,” the OIG continues.
In response to reported unauthorized drone sightings, the audit says the FAA has taken “limited enforcement actions” – partly due to the fact that the agency is often unable to identify the aircraft and its operator.
Even though the agency streamlined its exemption process for commercial drone operations last year – following “increasing requests for exemptions and concerns over lengthy approval times” – the OIG claims that the process was still not adequate.
Specifically, the OIG cites safety concerns: Although the drone operators obtained federal authorization to fly, they might not have properly understood the “conditions and limitations of their exemptions either before or after the application [was] approved.”
For example, the FAA decided to grant a blanket Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for flights at or below 400 feet to UAS operators with a Section 333 (commercial) exemption.
According to the OIG’s audit report, a flaw of this blanket approval process was that the FAA did not “track exemption holders by operating location.”
“Exemption holders are required to submit monthly COA activity reports if they operate their UAS (which includes the location of that operation), but the rulemaking office does not track the location of exemption holders beyond the mailing address submitted during the application process,” the OIG explains.
“This is problematic because exemption applicants often use attorneys to prepare and file their exemption requests,” the report continues. “In that case, FAA only has the address of the attorney who filed the request, not the UAS operator’s address.”
According to the OIG, although the FAA has recognized that the “location of a UAS flight could affect the inherent risk of the operation,” the agency has not, however, “established a comprehensive system to track this information.”
In turn, the audit says, the FAA has “limited knowledge of where UAS operate and limited means to oversee those operators following a granted exemption.”
So, where should the FAA go from here? The OIG has recommended the following steps:
1. Create “specific milestones” that “update and maintain UAS guidance to keep pace with technological developments and incorporate inspector feedback.”
2. Establish “comprehensive and updated training for safety inspectors on UAS technologies and agency rules and guidance related to UAS oversight.”
3. Create a process that would periodically “perform inspections of commercial UAS operators based on operational factors,” such as their location and type of drone flights.
4. Come up with a “risk-based and prioritized oversight plan” for drones.
5. Establish a process to “coordinate existing disparate UAS databases within [the] FAA to facilitate data mining and safety analysis.”
6. Establish a process in which drone data can be shared with “field oversight offices to assist inspectors in risk-based and proactive oversight of civil UAS operations.”
The OIG maintains that the FAA has already taken into consideration all of the aforementioned recommendations.
Specifically, the agency has “proposed appropriate planned actions and completion dates” for recommendations five and six but has asked the OIG to close recommendations one, two and three and four; according to the FAA, it has already taken action for these steps, but the OIG says it is still requesting further information from the agency on its work to meet the requirements.
However, for recommendations five and six, the FAA says in a memorandum that it will implement No. 6 by Nov. 1, 2017, and No. 5 by March 30, 2018, considering how much “external stakeholder coordination” will be needed in order to do so.