Unmanned – or uncrewed – Aircraft Systems (UAS) serve diverse sectors of the economy and are rapidly growing in number across the United States. As UAS technology and physical and operational characteristics evolve, opportunities for some systems to evade detection and create challenges for the National Airspace System (NAS) arise.
Reports from pilots, citizens, and law enforcement of drones operating outside of authorized airspace have increased over the past two years, and since November 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recorded over 12,000 of these sightings. The FAA now receives more than 100 such reports each month and is working closely with the law enforcement community to identify and investigate unauthorized unmanned aircraft operations.
Many UAS are used for legitimate operations; however, the systems can also be used for malicious or disruptive activities by terrorists, criminal organizations, or other lone actors. To respond to these threats, private industry has developed countermeasure or mitigation technologies referred to as counter-UAS (C-UAS). Given the increasing safety and security concerns related to UAS, the Ranking Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation requested that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Transportation assess the FAA’s C-UAS coordination efforts.
OIG found that the FAA is coordinating with Federal agencies that use UAS detection and C-UAS technologies to ensure there is no impact to the NAS by such use. However, the audit also found that the FAA has not conducted a strategic assessment of the UAS detection and C-UAS program to ensure it has the resources needed and agile coordination processes in place to keep pace with increasing demand.
For example, the FAA has not reassessed its personnel resources and organizational structure to ensure it can keep pace with potential program growth. Under the FAA’s current structure, it does not have staff dedicated solely to processing and evaluating coordination requests from Federal agencies seeking to use UAS detection and C-UAS equipment. Rather, these staff members are subject matter experts that assume these responsibilities in addition to their other duties.
FAA’s Airport UAS Detection and Mitigation Research Program will test and evaluate at least 10 detection and C-UAS technologies or systems that can detect and mitigate potential aviation threats or safety risks posed by UAS at five U.S. airports. Information gained from this program will assist the FAA in developing a plan for certifying, permitting, authorizing, or allowing deployment of UAS detection and mitigation technologies in the future. This testing and evaluation effort is scheduled to be completed in 2023. However, OIG found that testing has been delayed and is just now getting started, which means completing all phases of this program could take years.
The FAA will evaluate technologies or systems with radio frequency, radar, optical, or acoustic sensors that can detect UAS, as well as technologies or systems that can mitigate UAS using physical intervention. However, OIG found that the FAA has not yet selected all of the UAS detection and C-UAS technologies or systems to be tested in this first testing round. According to the FAA, vendors that have been selected or are being considered for participation in the testing may have COVID-related supply chain issues.
Atlantic City International Airport (Atlantic City, NJ) is the first of the five airports to conduct a preliminary evaluation of all selected technologies or systems. To establish baseline performance data, FAA will perform testing at this airport for 3 to 4 months. Once complete, a second round of testing is planned to continue evaluating how different airport variables affect the performance of each UAS detection and C-UAS technology or system.
It is worth noting that other Federal agencies are conducting similar testing and share information with the FAA. For example, the Department of Homeland Security is conducting its Air Domain Awareness Program on the U.S. northern border and must obtain concurrence for each UAS detection and C-UAS deployment with the FAA.
To improve its UAS detection and C-UAS program strategic planning and mandated testing, OIG has made three recommendations to the FAA:
- Conduct a UAS detection and C-UAS program assessment that includes a determination of future resource needs and organizational structure based on how to best align those resources.
- Evaluate the UAS detection and C-UAS coordination request process to identify and correct inefficiencies to improve timeliness in anticipation of future program growth.
- Finalize internal UAS detection and C-UAS request processing and document retention guidance.
In response to the report in general, the FAA disagreed with the statement that “FAA has not assessed its internal program resources to ensure it can meet anticipated future growth.” It states that its Office of Airports has identified the need for additional staff and created a new division to specifically manage new and emerging entrant issues, including UAS and UAS detection activities on airports.
The FAA concurred with the recommendations however and expects to implement the first and third by the end of this year and the second by February 28, 2023.