GAO: FAA makes slow, but steady progress integrating UAS flights

By Ann Bailey | August 20, 2015

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is making progress, albeit slow, toward its goal of integrating UAS flights into national air space, a new Government Accountability Office study said.

The federal agency, the GAO study noted, has increased the number of approvals, doing so on a case-by-case basis. Since 2010, the total number of approvals annually have increased and during the past year has, for the first time, included approval for commercial UAS operations, the study said. Meanwhile, FAA also issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for regulations for UAS’s weighing fewer than 55 pounds.

While the integration of UAS flights into national air space remains a work in progress, “clearly we were able to say that all the signs are pointing in a positive direction, that FAA is definitely moving forward with this integration” said Gerald Dillingham, GAO physical infrastructure director. “Although, it probably took longer than most people wanted it to take, right now, it looks like we’re on a good path.”

The FAA developed a phased approach to facilitate and, among other things, develop test sites to safely integrate UAS into national air space at the direction of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The test sites became operational in 2014 and more than 195 tests, which provide operations and safety data to FAA, have occurred as of March 2015. FAA also has provided all tests sites with authorization allowing small UAS operations below 200 feet anywhere in the United States.

However, the test sites faced challenges because they needed more guidance about what type of research they should conduct and were unable to get it. FAA said it cannot direct the test sites and the test sites could not receive federal funding, the GAO report said.  The FAA did, though, provide the test sites with a list of potential research areas to provide them with some guidance. The FAA has conducted research with MITRE and some universities and in May 2015 named the location of the UAS Center of Excellence. The center is a partnership among academia, industry and the government which conducts additional UAS research and, unlike, FAA’s agreement with the test sites, have arrangements that addresses how to share research and data.

The FAA has issued a broad plan called UAS Comprehensive Plan and Integration Roundup, the GAO study said, but still is working with MITRE to develop a foundation for the plan and expects to enact it by December.

While it is true that some other countries, including Australia, France and Canada, have more quickly integrated drones into their airspaces, those countries also have been operating drones for many more years than the United States has and, as a result, have a body of knowledge and experience, Dillingham said. Meanwhile, U.S. air space is the largest, most complicated air space on the planet, but also the safest air space on the planet, he said.

“So therefore, FAA is risk adverse. And I think everybody wants FAA to be risk adverse so they are going to make sure, as much as they can, that, when this investigation takes place, it’s done in a safe and efficient way.” Dillingham said.

Meanwhile, even though some countries operated drones before the United States used them, they now are “pulling back” so they can put in place more stringent regulations on their use, Dillingham noted.

According to Dillingham, the main factors that FAA should take into consideration when it integrates drones into the national airspace are:

-The FAA and drone operators must maintain a safe distance between others who use air space, whether it be large aircraft, small aircraft or helicopters. Safety of the rest of the flying public is key.

-A technological solution must be developed to ensure that drone pilots have command and control of the drone so that if they need to land it or if it needs to be directed in a certain way, they can do that.

-Concerns about privacy need to be addressed. There is significant concern that someone won’t use the technology correctly and violate the privacy of someone on the ground.