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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Transportation 2. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Homeland Security 3. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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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