GAO Tells FAA to Better Communicate With Stakeholders on Its UAS Traffic Management System

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working with industry and stakeholders to develop a drone traffic management system and recently concluded a pilot of the system. But a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found the FAA has yet to provide timelines and upcoming steps to stakeholders. The FAA establishes rules for operating drones, while industry service providers coordinate flights. 

It will use the results of the recent pilot program to evaluate technologies and create an implementation plan. The unmanned aerial system (UAS) traffic management ecosystem (referred to as UTM) involves developing a framework of interconnected systems for managing multiple UAS operations. Under UTM, FAA would first establish rules for operating UAS, and UAS-industry service providers and operators would then coordinate the execution of flights. Operators would likely be able to access UTM, for example, through smart phone applications to map routes for UAS flights and check for flight restrictions. FAA began collaborating in 2015 with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to establish and implement a framework to research, develop, and test increasingly complex UTM concepts and capabilities with industry stakeholders. For example, in one scenario tested in Virginia, UAS operators using UTM were alerted to a rescue helicopter, allowing the operators to avoid the area.

FAA conducted tests through its UTM pilot program, which it completed in November 2020, and is working on a UTM implementation plan. However, industry stakeholders told GAO they need more information on the next steps, and it is uncertain whether FAA’s plan will include performance goals and measures. FAA has reported that it plans to use results from the pilot program to inform its implementation plan, statutorily required one year after the pilot program concludes. 

UAS stakeholders generally agreed with FAA’s approach for moving UTM toward implementation. However, they said that they face planning challenges because FAA provides limited information on timing and substance of next steps, such as the areas of UTM technology that FAA will focus on during testing. In addition, FAA has not indicated whether the implementation plan will include performance goals and measures, instead stating that such metrics are not statutorily required. 

UTM is is expected to be centered on the sharing of information among operators and UAS service suppliers via an information exchange framework and airspace constraints set by the FAA. For example, If UAS operators are planning to fly in airspace around airports, the operators must receive an airspace authorization from FAA before they can fly. This focus on information sharing makes it more surprising and concerning that stakeholders are not receiving the information they require at this early stage of the program. 

Public policy changes related to cybersecurity and UAS will inevitably affect UTM implementation and FAA is therefore working with industry partners and federal stakeholders to identify and address the cybersecurity risks associated with the overall national airspace system. According to FAA officials, potential cyber attacks could exploit design and implementation weaknesses in UTM software, hardware, or interfaces. Examples include exploiting wired and wireless network protocols for unauthorized access, and software bugs for malware. FAA’s work with industry and stakeholders therefore includes identifying the security issues, defining the security requirements, and determining security mitigations for risks associated with systems specific to UAS, for example command and control links between unmanned aircraft and their operators. FAA has also stated the increased availability of UAS technology increases the potential use of UAS for illegal activity such as sabotaging critical infrastructure.

FAA officials told GAO’s review they are concerned about UAS potentially threatening physical security, as well as the need for UTM to mitigate these concerns. One of FAA’s concerns regarding physical security involves potential rogue UAS operators intending to cause physical harm, to inflict property damage, or otherwise to disrupt lives of members of the public. According to FAA, in the event of UAS-related threats, UTM will provide relevant information and assistance to responsible authorities. In December 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FAA signed a memorandum of understanding related to security. This memorandum set forth terms by which DHS and FAA will cooperate on various activities that support UAS integration into the national airspace system, with an emphasis on enhancing both aviation safety and security through broad research and concept exploration projects.

It is worth noting that FAA plans to conclude work on its UTM implementation plan in the spring of 2021, and more security concerns may be addressed then along with potential solutions.

GAO has told FAA to provide additional information to industry and stakeholders on the timing and substance of future UTM testing and implementation efforts, using FAA’s UTM website or other appropriate means. FAA agreed and said it could streamline its communication efforts by centralizing the information in one location to make it quickly retrievable for individuals who search for information on UTM. 

The watchdog also wants FAA to develop performance goals and measures for its UTM implementation plan. FAA agreed but said it will consider an alternative vehicle for the performance goals and measures, such as a standalone document published on the FAA website or in a planned UAS implementation tracking tool. 

This January, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced that it had formally terminated its audit of FAA’s role in authorizing small UAS operations, which was initiated in November 2018 and temporarily suspended in April 2019. Given the fast pace of development in the field of UAS, it is hardly surprising. However, OIG said it remains committed to the oversight of FAA process to safely integrate UAS, and such a vital area for the economy, industry and national security will likely see new audits in the coming months.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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