Unmanned Aircraft Systems:

FAA's Compliance and Enforcement Approach for Drones Could Benefit from Improved Communication and Data

GAO-20-29: Published: Oct 17, 2019. Publicly Released: Oct 17, 2019.

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Heather Krause
(202) 512-2834
Krauseh@gao.gov

 

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The FAA sets and enforces safety rules for all aircraft using the nation’s airspace. The rising popularity of small unmanned aircraft systems—commonly known as drones—has created new enforcement challenges for the agency.

FAA safety inspectors view local law enforcement as key resources when investigating potentially unsafe drone use. But, we found some law enforcement agencies don’t know what information to share with FAA or how to respond to such incidents.

We recommended that FAA focus on better educating and communicating with local law enforcement on their important role in drone investigations.

Drones can pose safety issues when not operated within FAA guidelines.

Two drones flying over a beach

Two drones flying over a beach

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Additional Materials:

Contact:

Heather Krause
(202) 512-2834
Krauseh@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspectors GAO met with said that law enforcement is an important source of information when they investigate potentially unsafe small unmanned aircraft systems’ (UAS) operations. The inspectors also told GAO that they take actions to educate operators or enforce penalties, in line with FAA policies, but that they face several challenges, including obtaining key information for investigations. Inspectors explained that of the multiple sources that may provide information for UAS investigations, reports from state and local law enforcement generally provide the most useful and actionable information. However, most law enforcement stakeholders GAO met with (9 of 11) stated that officers may not know how to respond to UAS incidents or what information to share with FAA. While FAA has articulated the pivotal role local law enforcement can play, and has developed resources for these entities, FAA has not consistently communicated this information to its law enforcement partners. For example, while about half of the inspectors told us they regularly conduct outreach to law enforcement agencies, the remainder said their efforts have been limited. Without a clear approach to communicate to the tens of thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies across the country, FAA does not have reasonable assurance these agencies are armed with knowledge they need to help FAA identify and address unsafe UAS operations.

Examples of Locations and Sources for Information on Potentially Unsafe UAS Use

Figure described in preceding paragraph. For additional information about this figure, refer to contacts listed at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-29

While FAA plans to continue its existing approach for small UAS safety oversight—focusing on operator education, targeted surveillance, and working with law enforcement—agency officials have not identified how they will use or improve existing data or considered whether additional data may be needed to assess their approach. FAA officials also said they will adjust their efforts moving forward based on semi-annual assessments of data. The agency, however, has not fully analyzed existing UAS safety data to identify trends in UAS incidents, and officials acknowledge these data have limitations (e.g., UAS data entries cannot be easily identified). In addition, FAA does not currently have plans to determine what existing or new data or information could help inform whether FAA’s oversight efforts are working as intended. Taking steps to identify and obtain key data will enable FAA to assess its existing approach and determine what further activities, if any, it should undertake to ensure safety. These steps will be important as the number and type of UAS operations the agency is responsible for overseeing expands.

Why GAO Did This Study

The use of small UAS—those weighing less than 55 pounds—continues to grow. As part of its safety mandate, FAA regulates and oversees UAS operations’ compliance, which includes prohibiting small UAS operators from endangering the life or property of another, among other things. Recent airport closures attributed to UAS sightings highlight the unique challenges small UAS pose to aviation safety oversight.

GAO was asked to examine the integration of small UAS operations into FAA’s safety oversight framework. This report examines: (1) how FAA’s aviation safety inspectors conduct small UAS compliance and enforcement, and challenges they face in doing so, and (2) the extent to which FAA is planning for compliance and enforcement in an evolving UAS environment. GAO reviewed relevant statutes and regulations, FAA guidance and reports; and interviewed FAA officials including headquarters and aviation safety inspectors at 11 FAA district offices selected to obtain geographic distribution and other criteria. GAO also interviewed FAA law enforcement special agents and selected state or local law enforcement agencies in each district.

What GAO Recommends

GAO has three recommendations, including that FAA: (1) develop an approach to communicate to local law enforcement agencies expectations for their role in UAS investigations, and (2) identify and obtain data needed to evaluate FAA’s small UAS compliance and enforcement activities, as the UAS environment evolves. FAA concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or Krauseh@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the FAA should identify UAS-specific education and training needs for inspectors, and develop appropriate training to address any needs identified. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the FAA should develop an approach to more effectively communicate key information to local law enforcement agencies regarding their expected role with regard to small UAS safety oversight. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the FAA should identify existing or new data and information needed to evaluate oversight activities and develop a mechanism for capturing these data as needed. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

 

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