OIG Plans to Assess FAA Oversight of Counter Drone Technology as DHS Warns of Malicious UAS Use

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Transportation has initiated an audit into the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of counter drone technology.

Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), serve diverse sectors of the economy such as entertainment and recreation, agriculture, real-estate, and local and federal government.

However, their unauthorized use can pose safety and security threats. The latest Homeland Threat Assessment from the Department of Homeland Security says terrorists and other criminal actors might look to UAS to threaten critical infrastructure. The report noted that in 2019, there were nearly 4,000 reports of unique incidents of UAS activity near U.S. critical infrastructure or public gatherings. 

As such, private industry has developed technologies, referred to as counter-UAS (C-UAS), to detect, monitor, and track UAS. 

The FAA is responsible for coordinating with other federal agencies such as the Department of Justice, Federal Communications Commission, and the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that UAS technology, including C-UAS, does not adversely affect aviation safety. Further, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 requires the FAA to develop a plan for certifying and authorizing counter-UAS systems. The FAA is also required to evaluate C-UAS technologies at five domestic airports that may detect and mitigate potential aviation safety risks. 

The Ranking Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation have therefore requested that OIG assess the FAA’s coordination with other agencies pertaining to counter-UAS. 

The audit will assess the FAA’s process for coordinating with other federal agencies to implement and issue guidance on the use of C-UAS and the strategies undertaken by the FAA to ensure that the use of C-UAS technologies by other agencies do not adversely affect aviation and aerospace safety.

OIG will begin its audit later this October. It will be conducted at the FAA’s headquarters and other locations yet to be determined.

OIG’s most recent audit into the FAA’s drone activities focused on its UAS registration service—known as FAA DroneZone. Then (April 15 2020), OIG found that the FAA had not effectively ensured that DroneZone and its Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability system have adequate security controls. For example, OIG said the FAA authorized DroneZone operations without conducting a comprehensive assessment of its security controls since it first began to operate the system in 2015. In addition, OIG found the FAA’s inadequate monitoring of security controls and use of unauthorized cloud systems increased the risk of the systems being compromised. 

As a result, OIG made 13 recommendations, which the FAA is currently working to address.

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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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