Report: FAA Needs to Make a Change to Drone Risk Assessment

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In order to effectively integrate drones into national airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should change its safety risk assessment approach for the technology, claims a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report says introducing drone operations into the nation’s airspace can provide substantial benefits to society; however, an overly conservative approach to safety risk assessments by the FAA – which, the report says, tends to overestimate the severity and likelihood of risks from many types of drone operations – can be a significant barrier to the introduction and development of this emerging and rapidly changing technology.

The new study was sponsored by FAA. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine. The academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

According to the report, drone operations in the U.S. that have the potential of providing safety benefits have been prevented from entering the airspace because of the FAA’s application of safety risk assessment techniques, developed over many years for manned aviation, which require evidence of a near-zero tolerance for risk. The academies argue that the “fear of making a mistake” drives a risk culture at FAA, particularly with regard to drone activities, which do not pose a direct threat to human life in the same way as technologies used in manned aircraft, the report says.

The academies say the focus of the FAA is often only on what might go wrong, but the dialogue needs to shift toward balancing risks with potential advantages of drone operations and thus developing a holistic picture on overall risk and benefit.

“FAA needs to accelerate its move away from the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy for UAS operations,” says George Ligler, proprietor of GTL Associates and chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. “The FAA’s current methods for safety and risk management certainly ensure safety within the manned aircraft sector, but UAS present new and unique challenges and opportunities, which make it important for the agency to take a broader view on risk analysis.”

The report urges the FAA to understand the threshold of risk that the public is likely to accept for small drones in the same context as other levels of publicly accepted risks for activities such as traveling by car, swimming in the ocean or walking across the street. Such an approach can particularly help establish appropriate safety standards for many UAS beyond those currently defined in the FAA’s regulation that governs small drones, the report says.

“Overly stringent certification and operational approval requirements for drone operations that are relatively low-risk have the potential for placing unnecessary burden on the business case and implementation timeline for those operations, stifling innovation,” Ligler adds.

The academies also argue that the lack of empirical data in this emerging industry means the current FAA approaches to UAS risk management are based fundamentally on qualitative and subjective risk analysis.

In turn, the report calls on the FAA to establish and publish specific guidelines within the next 12 months for implementing a predictable, repeatable and quantitative risk-based process for certifying UAS and granting operations approval. The administration should expand its perspective on quantitative risk assessment to look more holistically at the total safety risk, the report says; for example, the FAA should consider the safety benefit that accrues when a drone allows for cell tower inspections without the need for a human to climb the tower.

The report also recommends the FAA administrator publicly commit to reviewing risk assessments within six months so the proponents receive timely feedback. The administration should also undertake a top-to-bottom change in management processes with the aim of moving smartly to a risk-based decision-making organization with clearly defined lines of authority, responsibility and accountability, the report concludes.

In response to the findings, Patrick Byrnes, a partner in law firm Locke Lord’s litigation department and a member of its aviation and defense group, calls the new report “a very welcome development,” for it “echoes what many in the industry have been saying for years.”

“This study was sponsored by the FAA, and hopefully the FAA will take its findings to heart as it moves forward in this important area,” he adds

On the other hand, Matthew Kalas, an attorney in Locke Lord’s litigation department and a member of the aviation and defense group, says, “The new FAA-funded report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urging a probabilistic, risk-based assessment with strong words suggesting a top-down change in mindset at the FAA may be more pabulum than real food for thought.

“The Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, just a few days prior, heard testimony on the pressing need to address the security risks posed by drones, yet the academies assumed as a ‘guiding principle’ to its report that the ‘introduction of UAS will not degrade safety or security.’ So, which is it – unaddressed security risk or minor problem? It would seem more logical to address the first before assuming the latter.”

More on the report can be found here.

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