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Saturday, March 25, 2023

GAO: FAA Should Improve Its Approach to Integrating Drones into the National Airspace System

"I know the FAA and others recognize the importance of getting this right – given the complex security and safety issues that exist – and agree it is important to approach it thoughtfully," Cogswell said. "Unfortunately, bad actors aren’t waiting for us to figure it out. I’m hopeful the FAA can now make progress rapidly.”

The national airspace is a complex network that includes airports, aircraft, and air traffic control facilities. The growing adoption of drones or uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) both by recreational users as well as state and federal applications to inspect infrastructure, aid in disaster and wildfire response, and deliver medical supplies, for example, poses a concern to national airspace safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for safely integrating drones into the national airspace however the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the agency lacks a comprehensive strategy on the issue.

The FAA has developed various planning documents to manage its drone integration efforts but GAO found that the FAA’s documents partially include four of the seven elements of a comprehensive strategy but do not include the remaining three elements. For example, the FAA’s documents do not identify drone integration goals and objectives and only partially include milestones and performance measures for all activities. 

FAA officials told the government watchdog that they are developing a drone integration strategy. The release of this strategy has however been delayed multiple times, and GAO said it is unclear whether or not it will provide a comprehensive approach.

GAO’s review also found that the FAA has not clearly communicated how drone operators’ requests to conduct advanced operations can meet specific requirements or what the FAA’s process is for reviewing and approving those requests. Currently, drone operators seeking to conduct advanced operations not allowed under existing rules must submit operational requests by applying for waivers or exemptions to conduct these operations. However, more than half of 15 industry stakeholders told GAO that the FAA has not clearly communicated the requirements it looks for when reviewing and approving advanced operations. As a result, they faced challenges working with multiple FAA offices on these requests. For example, stakeholders said they experienced lengthy reviews of their requests, and at times received conflicting information from different FAA offices. Addressing these concerns, FAA officials said that they recognize that their process for reviewing operational requests is complex and that they plan to take steps to improve the FAA’s guidance.

According to the FAA’s own forecast, between 2021 and 2026, the recreational drone fleet will increase from about 1.58 million to 1.81 million and that the commercial drone fleet (those operated in connection with a business) will grow from 622,000 to 858,000.3 According to FAA, the commercial drone industry in particular is expected to expand rapidly as commercial drones become operationally more efficient and safe, battery life expands, and drone regulations evolve to support more complex drone operations.

To safely integrate these drones, the FAA says new regulations will need to be developed along with industry standards and aircraft certification requirements. Infrastructure will also be needed, such as a UAS traffic management system (referred to as UTM) intended to provide drone air navigation services in low-altitude airspace, which is below 400 feet.

To date, the FAA has taken an incremental approach to integrating drones by developing rules, policies, and procedures that allow for drone operations of gradually increasing risk and complexity. For example, the remote identification of drones (Remote ID) rule requires drones in flight to provide identification information—such as the identity, location, and altitude of the drone and its control station or takeoff location—via radio frequency broadcast. Drone operators must operate a Remote ID compliant drone beginning on September 16, 2023. Other activities include a planned series of rulemaking efforts that will address the use of drones beyond the visual line-of-sight. The FAA has also initiated several pilot programs and partnership arrangements to develop and test advanced drone concepts, capabilities, and operations. Further, it implements “No Drone Zones” in line with high profile and high traffic events such as the upcoming Super Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

However, the FAA shares GAO’s view that a comprehensive strategy is required and has begun developing one because FAA officials recognized that there was a need for a single comprehensive plan that reflected the agency’s overall vision for drone integration. FAA officials told GAO that they expect the draft strategy to be published in the first quarter of 2023. The FAA also concurred with GAO’s recommendation to evaluate its current documentation to identify options to more clearly communicate how applicants can satisfy drone operational request requirements and the FAA’s process for reviewing and approving operational requests.

“I’m glad to see GAO’s recommendations are focused on ones that will help the FAA accelerate action on safely incorporating UAS into the national airspace,” Former Deputy Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and now Partner at Guidehouse, Patricia Cogswell told Homeland Security Today. “I know the FAA and others recognize the importance of getting this right – given the complex security and safety issues that exist – and agree it is important to approach it thoughtfully. Unfortunately, bad actors aren’t waiting for us to figure it out. I’m hopeful the FAA can now make progress rapidly.”

Cogswell said it is important to recognize that China and other strategic competitors aren’t waiting for these rules. “They’ve already built a strong position in the U.S. market, with many individuals and entities proceeding in advance of the FAA. We sometimes take it for granted that the U.S. is the world leader in aviation. If we don’t stay ahead of current technology and provide a regulatory framework industry can use to innovate, our competitors will take that from us.”

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
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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