Nextgen Air Transportation System:

Mechanisms for Collaboration and Technology Transfer Could Be Enhanced to More Fully Leverage Partner Agency and Industry Resources

GAO-11-604: Published: Jun 30, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 8, 2011.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing and implementing a broad transformation of the national airspace system known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). NextGen is a complex undertaking that requires new technologies and supporting infrastructure and involves the activities of several agencies as well as private industry. This report provides information on the effectiveness of (1) FAA's and the federal partner agencies' mechanisms for collaborating and leveraging resources to develop and implement NextGen, and (2) FAA's mechanisms for working with and transferring technology to or from private industry. To do this, we assessed FAA and partner agency mechanisms against applicable agreements, the agencies' own guidance for these activities, as well as applicable key practices that GAO has reported can enhance federal collaborative efforts.

Some mechanisms for FAA and partner agency collaboration are effective, though others fail to ensure research and technology from the partner agencies and industry are fully used by FAA. Some mechanisms used by FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for coordinating research and transferring technology are consistent with several key practices in interagency coordination. For instance, FAA and NASA use research transition teams to coordinate research and transfer technologies from NASA to FAA. The design of these teams is consistent with several key practices GAO has identified in previous work that can enhance interagency coordination, such as identifying common outcomes, establishing a joint strategy to achieve that outcome, and defining each agency's role and responsibilities. This allows the agencies to overcome differences in mission, culture, and ways of doing business. However mechanisms for collaborating with other partner agencies do not always ensure that FAA effectively leverages agency resources. For example, the mechanisms used by FAA, DOD, and DHS have not yet resulted in a full determination of what research, technology, or expertise FAA can leverage to benefit NextGen. Further, collaboration between FAA, DOD, and DHS may be limited by differing priorities. Finally, FAA and the Joint Planning and Development Office--an interagency organization created to plan and coordinate research for NextGen--have not fully coordinated the partner agencies' research efforts, though they are working to address research gaps. A lack of coordination could result in a duplication of research or an inefficient use of resources. Numerous mechanisms are available to FAA to collaborate with industry to identify and transfer technology to advance NextGen, but some lack flexibility and outcomes can be unclear. Within its Acquisition Management System (AMS), FAA may use several mechanisms at various stages to conduct outreach, collaborate with private-sector firms, or transfer technology. In particular, FAA may use several types of research and development agreements between itself and the private sector as mechanisms to facilitate technology transfer. However, stakeholders said that the system can lack flexibility, in some circumstances, to consider alternative technologies or new ideas once the process is underway. GAO has made recommendations in the past to improve FAA's AMS system. FAA has begun to implement these recommendations. FAA is beginning to use a new, possibly more flexible, contracting vehicle--Systems Engineering 2020--to acquire the research, development, and systems engineering support to integrate NextGen concepts. FAA also reviews unsolicited proposals as a mechanism for private industry to offer unique ideas or approaches outside of the competitive procurement process. However, FAA's unsolicited proposal process is not a significant source of new technology for FAA. Other mechanisms such as outreach events with private industry and NextGen test facilities might enhance knowledge and result in technology transfer, but outcomes, such as specific benefits, from some of these mechanisms can be unclear. GAO recommends that FAA and the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS) work together to develop mechanisms that will enhance collaboration and technology transfer between the agencies. GAO and others have outstanding recommendations related to interaction with industry that FAA has begun to address and GAO makes no further recommendations in this report. DOD and DHS concurred with the recommendation, while FAA did not comment on whether or not it agreed.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011, we found that the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) collaborative mechanisms with the Department's of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS) in implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) fell short of established criteria, such as not defining common outcomes, identifying and addressing needs, or establishing compatible policies, procedures and other means to operate across agency boundaries. For example, FAA's ability to identify potentially useful DOD and DHS research and technology has been impeded because DOD and DHS have not completely identified research and development in their portfolios that is applicable to NextGen, while DOD's and DHS's ability to identify potentially useful research and technology may be impeded because FAA has not made clear the scope of its needs with enough specificity. Further, communication between DOD and FAA has been hampered by differing vocabularies and terms, and mechanisms have not yet been developed to help the agencies work across agency boundaries. We therefore recommended that FAA work with DOD and DHS to develop mechanisms that will further clarify NextGen interagency collaborative priorities and enhance technology transfer between the agencies. In response to our recommendation, the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO)--the office responsible for interagency coordination on NextGen within FAA--has taken several actions. First, in the area of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), the JPDO is actively working with representatives from DOD and DHS to identify needed UAS research areas and existing UAS-related research. The result will show coverage and gaps related to national goals and objectives outlined in the UAS comprehensive plan that FAA developed in concert with its partner agencies. Second, during 2013, the JPDO and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) mapped NextGen portfolio areas with AFRL emphasis areas to create a high-level research and development portfolio crosswalk. This activity led to a technology transfer to the FAA of a testbed for interagency data exchange. Lastly, during 2013, the JPDO and the NextGen partner agencies initiated periodic interchanges designed to enhance the collaborative relationship and further identify areas of mutual interest or concern. The JPDO has held the first interchanges with DOD. These actions and new mechanisms will help FAA to more fully leverage the potential of its partner agencies' research and technology development efforts.

    Recommendation: To more fully leverage the potential of NextGen partner agencies' research and technology development efforts, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the FAA to work with the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to develop mechanisms that will further clarify NextGen interagency collaborative priorities and enhance technology transfer between the agencies. These mechanisms should focus on improving interagency communication about the specific needs, outcomes, and existing research that FAA has for NextGen, and the existing research and technology development portfolios that may be applicable to NextGen within DOD and DHS. These mechanisms should aim to improve the ability of the agencies to leverage resources or transfer knowledge or technology among each other consistent with the key practices for successful collaboration that we lay out in this report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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