Recognizing that Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is the fastest growing segment of the aviation industry and in response to a Presidential Memorandum, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiated the three-year UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) in 2017. Through the IPP, FAA worked with selected State, local, and tribal governments, who partnered with private sector entities (e.g., UAS operators) to accelerate safe integration and help develop new rules to enable more complex UAS operations in the National Airspace System (NAS).
After ending the IPP as planned in October 2020, the FAA launched a follow-on program called BEYOND to address remaining UAS-related challenges, including operations beyond visual line of sight.
Citing the importance of the IPP’s efforts, 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 IPP, including next steps.
OIG’s audit found that while the FAA made progress advancing UAS operations through the IPP, results did not fully meet industry and participant expectations and integration challenges remain. Further, OIG said challenges with planning, data requirements, and the Agency’s organization hindered the IPP’s overall success.
The FAA also faced challenges balancing the need to ensure aviation safety with UAS innovation, especially given the complexity of proposed operations.
OIG found that issues coordinating across multiple FAA lines of business and Agency turnover contributed to participant frustration and program challenges.
The watchdog determined that the FAA incorporated lessons learned and best practices into BEYOND, but challenges that limited the IPP’s success remain. As a result, OIG believes it is uncertain when the FAA and industry will be positioned to enable operations beyond visual line of sight that are economically viable throughout the NAS.
OIG made six recommendations to improve the FAA’s use of UAS IPP results, including in its current program, BEYOND. The FAA concurred with all six recommendations and plans to implement them by the end of this calendar year. The FAA also pointed out that the IPP was an exploratory program focused upon new, innovative, and rapidly evolving technology and concepts of operation. The FAA is still in the learning phase of how to safely and fully integrate drones into the NAS.