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

Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The rapid growth in the use of “drones”—i.e., unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—for both civilian and commercial purposes present opportunities and challenges for federal agencies.

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Since the early 1990s, UAS have operated on a limited basis in the national airspace—i.e., the navigable airspace environment within the United States for civil, commercial, and military aviation—primarily supporting public uses like military and border-security operations.

More recently, the use of small UAS (those that weigh less than 55 pounds) has rapidly expanded to include a broad range of public and commercial operations—such as law enforcement activities, assisting in search and rescue operations, inspecting pipelines and infrastructure, photographing real estate, surveying land, disaster assistance, and news gathering, as well as recreational purposes. These aircraft, which are typically flown via remote control by a pilot on the ground, are generally restricted from operating beyond the pilot’s line of sight, over people, above 400 feet, and within certain distances of an airport.

Current and Potential Future Civilian and Commercial Uses for Small UAS

Current Potential Future Civilian and Commercial Uses for Small UAS

Potential risks

Small UAS are easy to purchase and fly in the national airspace, which raises a number of safety and security concerns. Safety risks related to the use of small UAS include the potential for unintentional collisions with manned aircraft or other objects. For instance, the pilot of a small UAS:

  • may not be able to see manned aircraft in the air in time to prevent a mid-air collision
  • could lose control of it due to a failure of the communications link between the UAS and the pilot’s handset

UAS can also cause damage to property, injury, or death. Additionally, national security is a significant issue—small UAS can breach traditional security perimeters at sensitive sites (such as nuclear power plants) and at public venues like sports stadiums. The use of UAS also has privacy implications, including the potential for undesired or unwarranted surveillance, the collection and use of such data, and potential violations of constitutional protections.

Examples of Fixed-Wing and Multi-Rotor Small UAS

Examples of Fixed-Wing and Multi-Rotor  Small UAS

Limited data

However, the federal government’s information on the extent of unsafe use of small UAS is limited. Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other agencies collect data on several types of incidents involving UAS, the accuracy and completeness of this data is questionable. Specifically, pilots and others have reported over 6,000 sightings of unsafe UAS use to FAA since 2014—such as UAS flying near manned aircraft or airports.

FAA cannot verify that small UAS were involved in these sightings because gathering accurate data is challenging due to factors like their speed and distance from the observing pilot. Such data limitations impede FAA’s ability to determine and implement appropriate oversight. However, FAA is undertaking some efforts to improve this data on small UAS operations and safety events. For example, it is planning to collect additional data on safety events from UAS users and the public as part of its plan to integrate UAS into the national airspace.

FAA's Monthly Reports of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Sightings, February 2014 through April 2018

FAA's Monthly Reports of  Unmanned Aircraft Systems Sightings, February 2014 through April 2018

Moving forward

While small UAS use is still not currently allowed for some applications—such as those beyond the visual line of sight of the operator—and its use for other applications is limited by regulatory restrictions in civilian airspace, FAA has made some progress in safely integrating this technology into the national airspace. FAA issued the first regulations allowing routine commercial small UAS operations in June 2016, and it is developing standards to allow small UAS to operate over the public in urban areas. However, as FAA proceeds with its plans to achieve full integration of small UAS into the national airspace, it must ensure that safety risks are addressed while enabling development of this technology’s commercial potential.

To enhance the safety of UAS operations, Congress and many industry stakeholders have pushed FAA to require remote identification and tracking technology on all small UAS operating in the national airspace. The identification data would include a unique identifier for the UAS, location tracking information, and owner and remote pilot identification. Accordingly, FAA has begun a research initiative to solicit information to help develop a realistic approach to remote identification and tracking requirements. FAA needs to also establish a mechanism to ensure that its management of the safety risks posed by small UAS operations follows all applicable principles and requirements in FAA’s policies.

Additionally, the detection of potential threats posed by small UAS operations has become increasingly important due to increased sightings of UAS flying close to aircraft at some of the country’s busiest airports and other sensitive areas. FAA has been coordinating with other federal agencies in interagency work groups to assess, detect, and mitigate security risks posed by small UAS to critical infrastructure. However, agencies may face legal restrictions in their attempts to detect or mitigate UAS threats. For example, certain activities—such as jamming or hijacking the radio signals that control a UAS or taking down a UAS by hitting it with a projectile—may be restricted under current statutes.

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  • portrait of Heather Krause
    • Heather Krause
    • Director, Physical Infrastructure
    • krauseh@gao.gov
    • (202) 512-2834