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.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
|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.||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
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|