Unmanned Aircraft Systems:

Federal Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Expand Their Potential Uses within the National Airspace System

GAO-08-511: Published: May 15, 2008. Publicly Released: May 15, 2008.

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Government and private-sector interest is growing in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for use in a variety of missions such as U.S. border protection, hurricane research, law enforcement, and real estate photography. However, UASs can fly only after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducts a case-by-case safety analysis. GAO's research questions included (1) What are the current and potential uses and benefits of UASs? (2) What challenges exist in operating UASs safely and routinely in the national airspace system? and (3) What is the federal government's response to these challenges? To address these questions, GAO reviewed the literature, interviewed agency officials and aviation stakeholders, and surveyed 23 UAS experts.

UASs are currently being used by federal agencies for border security, science research, and other purposes. Local governments see potential uses in law enforcement or firefighting and the private sector sees potential uses, such as real estate photography. An industry survey states that UAS production could increase in the future to meet such government and private-sector uses. Experts predict that UASs could perform some manned aircraft missions with less noise and fewer emissions. UASs pose technological, regulatory, workload, and coordination challenges that affect their ability to operate safely and routinely in the national airspace system. UASs cannot meet aviation safety requirements, such as seeing and avoiding other aircraft. UASs lack security protection--a potential challenge if UASs proliferate as expected after obtaining routine airspace access. The lack of FAA regulations for UASs limits their operation to case-by-case approvals by FAA. Anticipated increases in requests to operate UASs could pose a workload challenge for FAA. Coordinating multiple efforts to address these challenges is yet another challenge. FAA and the Department of Defense (DOD) are addressing technological challenges. DHS has not addressed the national security implications of routine UAS access to the airspace. FAA estimates that completing UAS safety regulations will take 10 or more years, but has not yet issued its program plan to communicate the steps and time frames required for providing routine UAS access. FAA is working to allow small UASs to have airspace access and has designated specific airspace for UAS testing. It plans to use data from this testing and from DOD to develop regulations, but has not yet analyzed data that it has already collected. To address its workload challenge, FAA is using more automation. Aviation stakeholders and experts suggested that an overarching entity could help coordinate and expedite federal, academic, and private-sector efforts. In 2003, Congress created a similar entity in FAA to coordinate planning for the next generation air transportation system among multiple federal agencies and the private sector.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To coordinate and focus the efforts of federal agencies and harness the capabilities of the private sector so that the nation may obtain further benefits from UASs as soon as possible, Congress may wish to consider creating an overarching body within FAA, as it did when it established Joint Planning and Development Office, to coordinate federal, academic, and private-sector efforts in meeting the safety challenges of allowing routine UAS access to the national airspace system.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 contained no provision to create the overarching UAS coordinating body recommended by GAO.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To obtain further benefits from UASs, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to expedite efforts to ensure that UASs have routine access to the national airspace system by analyzing the data FAA collects on UAS operations under its certificates of waiver or authorization and establish a process to analyze DOD data on its UAS research, development, and operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we reported that the absence of a comprehensive database on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) safety and reliability hindered FAA's efforts to develop a regulatory framework for UASs We also reported that FAA does collect data on UAS flights that it authorizes on a case by case basis, but was not analyzing that data because of resource constraints. We also reported that the Department of Defense's (DOD) extensive experience with UAS operations and its accumulated data represent potentially rich sources of information on UAS operations, with caveats regarding the difference between military use in a wartime environment and civil use in the U.S. national airspace system. We recommended that FAA analyze the data it collects on authorized UAS operations in the national airspace system and that FAA establish a process to analyze DOD data on its UAS research, development, and operations. In response to our recommendation, FAA has developed a web-based template for UAS operators to report monthly operating statistics, including the UAS type, number of flights, and number of flying hours. There are also templates for reporting accidents and incidents that call for the type of UAS and the nature of the accident, among other things. Additionally, FAA and DOD have established a memorandum of understanding for sharing safety mishap information related to the operation of UASs. These two steps will provide data to help FAA' develop a regulatory framework for routine UAS access to the national airspace system.

    Recommendation: To obtain further benefits from UASs, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to expedite efforts to ensure that UASs have routine access to the national airspace system by finalizing and issuing a UAS program plan to address the future of UASs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we reported on the growing government and private-sector interest in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the challenges that exist in operating them safely in the national airspace system, and the federal government's response to the challenges. We reported that at least a decade of work would be needed to develop technical specifications and regulations before UASs could routinely access the national airspace system. At the time of our work, FAA was developing a UAS program plan that would inform the aviation community of the steps and time frames required prior to allowing routine UAS access. We recommended that FAA finalize and issue a UAS program plan to address the future of UASs. In 2009, FAA completed its plan and has shared it with the UAS community. As of February 2012, the plan was posted on FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Program Office web site.

    Recommendation: To ensure that appropriate UAS security controls are in place when civil-use UASs have routine access to the national airspace system, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Transportation Security Administration Administrator to examine the security implications of future, non-military UAS operations in the national airspace system and take any actions deemed appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: TSA agrees that security of UAS is important, but believes existing procedures are sufficient and does not intend to implement this recommendation.

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