Following a review, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should better educate and communicate with local law enforcement on unsafe drone use.
The FAA sets and enforces safety rules for all aircraft using the nation’s airspace. The rising popularity of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has created new enforcement challenges for the agency.
District FAA offices have taken few compliance and enforcement actions for UAS activity relative to the number of recorded UAS occurrences. Specifically, inspectors at FAA’s district offices recorded approximately 5,500 UAS occurrences—which include reports of potentially unsafe incidents, investigations, and general inquiries related to UAS—from October 2015 to October 2018. During the same time period, inspectors completed approximately 570 compliance and enforcement actions, which can result in actions ranging from on-the-spot corrections to civil penalties.
Of the approximately 570 actions completed by inspectors from October 2015 to October 2018, about 470 were compliance actions. Over half of all district offices (47 of 78) took five or fewer compliance actions during this three-year period. The district office with the most compliance actions had completed 59—more than double the number completed by the district office with the second-most compliance actions. Officials at the district that had taken the most compliance actions said their management had prioritized UAS issues several years ago, including building relationships with local law enforcement agencies and others in the community in order to proactively address UAS noncompliance and help respond to UAS incidents.
Local law enforcement is an important source of information when FAA investigates potentially unsafe UAS operations. FAA inspectors told GAO that they take actions to educate operators or enforce penalties, in line with FAA policies, but that they face several challenges, including obtaining key information for investigations. Inspectors explained that of the multiple sources that may provide information for UAS investigations, reports from state and local law enforcement generally provide the most useful and actionable information. However, most law enforcement stakeholders GAO met with (9 of 11) stated that officers may not know how to respond to UAS incidents or what information to share with FAA.
GAO maintains that while FAA has articulated the pivotal role local law enforcement can play, and has developed resources for these entities, it has not consistently communicated this information to its law enforcement partners. For example, while about half of the inspectors told GAO that they regularly conduct outreach to law enforcement agencies, the remainder said their efforts have been limited. Without a clear approach to communicate to the tens of thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies across the country, FAA does not have reasonable assurance these agencies are armed with knowledge they need to help FAA identify and address unsafe UAS operations.
FAA plans to continue its existing approach for small UAS safety oversight, focusing on operator education, targeted surveillance, and working with law enforcement. However, GAO found it has not identified how it will use or improve existing data or considered whether additional data may be needed to assess its approach. FAA officials also said they will adjust their future efforts based on semi-annual assessments of data. But GAO says the agency has not fully analyzed existing UAS safety data to identify trends in UAS incidents, and officials acknowledge these data have limitations (e.g., UAS data entries cannot be easily identified).
GAO is making three recommendations to FAA via the Department of Transportation as a result of its review and findings. First, to identify UAS-specific education and training needs for inspectors, and develop appropriate training to address any needs identified. Second, that the Administrator of FAA should develop an approach to more effectively communicate key information to local law enforcement agencies regarding their expected role with regard to small UAS safety oversight. Finally, GAO recommends that FAA should identify existing or new data and information needed to evaluate oversight activities and develop a mechanism for capturing these data as needed.
The department concurred with all three recommendations and it is worth noting that FAA has recently identified opportunities for surveillance. For example, in February 2019, the agency issued a notice setting out two new surveillance requirements to help identify non-compliant UAS activity, requiring certain district offices to conduct specific surveillance activities.
Also, FAA officials expect “remote identification”—a technology that would allow a person on the ground to gather information from a UAS flying in the airspace above—to ultimately mitigate some challenges posed by the nature of UAS. While technologies that allow remote identification and tracking of UAS exist currently, there are different methods for how this technology can be implemented, and no consensus exists on the preferred standard. FAA is in the process of developing a proposed rule for remote identification.
Members of FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee unanimously approved recommendations regarding remote identification and other UAS security issues that were made in a recent Blue Ribbon Task Force report on UAS mitigation.
It is frustrating for both law enforcement and the aviation industry that gaps still exist concerning unsafe and potentially malicious UAS use, but encouraging that most of the pieces are in place, or will be soon. The key then will be to ensure proper communication between the entities that keep our skies safe.