FAA Faces Significant Barriers to Safely Integrating UAS Vehicles Into the National Airspace System

To the surprise of no one who’s been paying attention, the FAA finds itself in a pickle.

A scathing new Inspector General report suggests that the office of the FAA tasked with integrating drones into the national air space is in disarray and suggests that the agency has so many hurdles to clear before drones can be safely integrated nationwide that it believes the day drones become commonplace may never come.

Here is the Inspector General’s summary:

Significant technological, regulatory, and management barriers exist to safely integrate UAS into the NAS. First, following many years of working with industry, FAA has not reached consensus on standards for technology that would enable UAS to detect and avoid other aircraft and ensure reliable data links between ground stations and the unmanned aircraft they control. Second, FAA has not established a regulatory framework for UAS integration, such as aircraft certification requirements, standard air traffic procedures for safely managing UAS with manned aircraft, or an adequate controller training program for managing UAS. Third, FAA is not effectively collecting and analyzing UAS safety data to identify risks. This is because FAA has not developed procedures for ensuring that all UAS safety incidents are reported and tracked or a process for sharing UAS safety data with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the largest user of UAS. Finally, FAA is not effectively managing its oversight of UAS operations. Although FAA established a UAS Integration Office, it has not clarified lines of reporting or established clear guidance for UAS regional inspectors on authorizing and overseeing UAS operations. Until FAA addresses these barriers, UAS integration will continue to move at a slow pace, and safety risks will remain.

This suggests a shocking level of disarray within the organization. The easiest part of this process, and one that should have begun years ago, would be to establish a system for collecting safety data. But the FAA hasn’t even established a regime for sharing safety data with the DoD, let alone collecting data from the private sector. Given recent “enforcement” actions, one imagines that the FAA has assigned a roomful of interns to collect safety data by monitoring news stories on the internet.

It’s like asking Johnny to hand in his essay and finding that Johnny hasn’t even begun researching his topic, let alone started writing. Perhaps Johnny can be forgiven. But a major US regulatory agency with oversight of a critical public safety function shouldn’t be cut any slack. And this is not just endangering public safety; it’s holding up billions of dollars in business investment that promises to create many high-paying jobs. It’s not like we have a surplus of economic growth flying around, these days.

POTUS needs to start firing people. But I’m not holding my breath.