Key Issues > Uncrewed Aircraft Systems
defense icon, source: [West Covina, California] Progressive Management, 2008

Uncrewed Aircraft Systems

The rapid growth in drone (uncrewed aircraft systems) use for civilian and commercial purposes presents opportunities and challenges for federal agencies.

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The emergence of uncrewed aircraft systems (i.e., drones) has the potential to provide significant social and economic benefits in the United States. Drones can deliver packages, help fight fires, and provide other benefits. For example, drones were used for contactless distribution of personal protective equipment and medical supplies at hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drones also have a variety of military uses, such as supporting Department of Defense (DOD) efforts to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  

Growth in drone use is expected to increase dramatically in the future. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has forecasted that the commercial drone fleet (drones operated in connection with a business) will reach 828,000, and that the recreational fleet (drones operated for personal enjoyment) will number around 1.48 million by 2024. Consequently, the FAA has worked to address a number of issues to ensure that drones are safely integrated into the nation’s airspace.

For example, FAA safety inspectors view local law enforcement as key resources when investigating potentially unsafe drone use. To ensure that law enforcement agencies know what information to share with FAA and how to respond to incidents, FAA has begun to focus on better educating and communicating with local law enforcement on their role in drone investigations. Additionally, the FAA is working on safely integrating drones into the national airspace with manned aircraft. FAA has 7 designated drone test sites, which have facilitated about 15,000 drone research flights since 2015.The agency is also working to make better use of the data it collects from the test sites by developing a data analysis plan and sharing more information publicly.

FAA's Areas of Focus for Integrating Drones

FAA's Areas of Focus for Integrating Drones

However, the FAA still faces some challenges with regulating drones. For instance:  

  • Demands on the FAA’s staff and resources are increasing as the agency works to ensure the safety of drones. To help, the administration and Congress could set user fees to help FAA recover costs. Improving drone-related cost information and using available guidance could better position FAA to potentially recover those costs with fees in the future.
  • A key effort to integrating drones into the national airspace will be the development of a drone traffic management system for drone flights at lower altitudes. The FAA is working with industry and stakeholders, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to develop such a system. The agency recently concluded a pilot of the system, and plans to use the results to evaluate technologies and create an implementation plan. However, the FAA has yet to provide timelines and upcoming steps to stakeholders.
  • As FAA moves toward safe integration of drones, there are complex legal, technical, and policy questions that have yet to be resolved. The law regarding a number of drone jurisdiction and privacy matters is in a state of flux, both because the federal government is still developing key aspects of its safety and security requirements and because there have been relatively few court decisions to date addressing whether these requirements are consistent with statutory authorities.

Examples of Fixed-Wing and Multi-Rotor Small UAS

Examples of Fixed-Wing and Multi-Rotor Small UAS

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GAO: Watchdog Report Podcast Looks at FAA Role Ensuring Safety Among Drones and Passenger Planes
  • portrait of Heather Krause
    • Heather Krause
    • Director, Physical Infrastructure
    • krauseh@gao.gov
    • (202) 512-2834