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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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Fast Facts

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

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Highlights

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.

Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Aviation Administration 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)
Closed – Implemented
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees compliance with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or "drones") safety regulations, including those prohibiting small UAS operators from endangering lives and property. In 2019, GAO reported that the nature of UAS operations presents a key challenge to obtaining sufficient evidence to investigate potential non-compliance. Selected inspectors at almost all of the 11 FAA district offices GAO met with identified limited UAS-specific knowledge as a challenge related to UAS compliance and enforcement, and said that FAA training related to small UAS was insufficient. Specifically, GAO reported that some inspectors said it would be helpful to have investigation training tailored specifically to UAS. This practice is not uncommon in FAA. While FAA officials said the agency's general approach is to continually assess and identify emerging training needs, they did not identify any actions taken to formally assess whether inspectors' current UAS training is sufficient. Without assessing whether current training for inspectors is sufficient, FAA does not have reasonable assurance that its personnel can fully investigate and address incidents of UAS non-compliance. Therefore, GAO recommended that the FAA Administrator identify UAS-specific education and training needs for inspectors, and develop appropriate training to address any needs identified. In 2020, GAO confirmed that FAA has taken steps to refine the agency's UAS Outreach Program, which includes weekly interactive webinars, a dedicated internal SharePoint site, and an internal email support system for collecting and responding to UAS-related questions. FAA uses various tools to ensure the content of the webinars focus on the tasks and activities performed by inspectors in the field. The content is also continually refined to target the areas where inspectors demonstrate potential knowledge gaps. In addition, FAA officials analyze data applicable to UAS on a weekly basis, which provides an opportunity to identify any potential knowledge gaps. This information is subsequently used to develop content for future webinars and guidance and reference documents. FAA also uses audience polling to assess the effectiveness of its training program, and measure the transfer of knowledge to the inspectors over time. As a result of these actions to expand and continually refine UAS-specific education and training resources, FAA has more assurance that inspectors are equipped with the information they need to investigate and ensure compliance with relevant small UAS regulations.
Federal Aviation Administration
Priority Rec.
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)
Closed – Implemented
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees compliance with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or "drones") safety regulations, including those prohibiting small UAS operators from endangering lives and property. In 2019, GAO reported that selected FAA safety inspectors said that law enforcement is an important source of information when they investigate potentially unsafe small UAS operations. Specifically, GAO reported 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 developed resources for these entities, FAA has not consistently communicated this information to its law enforcement partners. 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. Therefore, GAO recommended that the FAA Administrator 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. In 2020, GAO confirmed that FAA had conducted a number of additional outreach activities, including presenting at numerous symposiums and conferences and conducting public safety webinars for law enforcement agencies. Going forward, FAA plans to provide UAS information to the law enforcement community via State Fusion Centers, and set outreach targets for specific sizes of law enforcement agencies. For example, FAA set a target of reaching out to the top 10 police departments (collectively 100,000 officers), as well as at least 10 police departments of 30 or more officers and 10 departments of less than 30 officers to provide information and engage on UAS enforcement. As a result of this approach, FAA has reasonable assurance that more law enforcement agencies will be armed with the knowledge they need to share information about unsafe UAS use with the FAA, which will enable the agency to better respond to incidents that could endanger public safety.
Federal Aviation Administration
Priority Rec.
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)
Closed – Implemented
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees compliance with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or "drones") safety regulations, including those prohibiting small UAS operators from endangering lives and property. In 2019, GAO reported that FAA plans to continue its existing approach for small UAS safety oversight-focusing on operator education, targeted surveillance, and working with law enforcement. While FAA officials said they would adjust their efforts moving forward based on semi-annual assessments of data, FAA had not fully analyzed existing UAS safety data to identify trends in UAS incidents. In addition, officials acknowledged existing data sources used to inform UAS oversight efforts have limitations. For example, FAA lacks a mechanism that would allow the agency to quickly identify trends. Further, GAO found that FAA officials had not identified how they will use or improve existing data nor considered whether additional data or information may be needed to assess their oversight approach. Identifying quality information is necessary to evaluate one's efforts, and without doing so, FAA would be limited in its ability to effectively adjust its UAS oversight activities moving forward. Therefore, GAO recommended that the FAA Administrator should identify existing or new data and information needed to evaluate oversight activities and develop a mechanism for capturing these data as needed. In 2020, GAO confirmed that FAA has taken steps to identify and use data necessary in evaluating oversight activities. Specifically, FAA identified and collected UAS data from two new sources to evaluate its oversight activities: Enforcement Information System data and data generated from surveillance activities. According to FAA, analysis of these new data in conjunction with existing data indicated specific safety risks from noncompliant UAS operations, such as to emergency response efforts, among other things. As a result of this data analysis, FAA adjusted its fiscal year 2020 and 2021 UAS work plans, requiring district offices to conduct targeted UAS surveillance and capture specific UAS data going forward. GAO also confirmed that FAA is taking steps to continually assess the data it collects. For example, agency officials told GAO they meet weekly to review and assess UAS data generated through the implementation of the work plan, which provides them the opportunity to address any data quality or program effectiveness issues. Further, agency officials said weekly data reviews help them determine where best to allocate resources for oversight activities. As a result of these actions, FAA has taken steps to identify and obtain pertinent data needed to assess its existing approach and determine whether further activities should be considered to ensure safety. This is of particular importance as the number and type of UAS operations the agency is responsible for overseeing continues to expand.

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Topics

AircraftAirspaceAviationAviation safetyCompliance oversightDronesLaw enforcementNational airspaceSafetyUnmanned aircraft systems