Unmanned Aircraft Systems:

FAA Could Better Leverage Test Site Program to Advance Drone Integration

GAO-20-97: Published: Jan 9, 2020. Publicly Released: Jan 9, 2020.

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Contact:

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

 

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youngc1@gao.gov

Drones have the potential to deliver packages, monitor crops, and provide many other significant social and economic benefits in the United States.

The Federal Aviation Administration, in coordination with industry, is working on safely integrating drones into the national airspace with manned aircraft. FAA has 7 designated drone test sites, which have facilitated about 15,000 drone research flights since 2015.

FAA could make better use of the data it collects from the test sites. We recommended FAA develop a data analysis plan and share more information publicly about how test site research relates to the agency’s drone integration plans.

Two drones flying over a beach

Two drones flying over a beach

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's (FAA) seven designated test sites for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have facilitated about 15,000 UAS flight tests since 2015 and supported a wide range of research. Both public and private entities have used the test sites to test technologies in preparation for varied UAS activities, from inspecting utilities to carrying passengers. Research conducted at test sites provides data on the performance of various UAS capabilities and technologies; such data could support FAA's integration efforts.

Example of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Flight Test Conducted at a Test Site

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While FAA collects this data from test sites, it has not fully leveraged the data or the program to advance UAS integration. According to FAA's 2018 Roadmap for UAS Integration a key goal of this program is to provide data to support FAA's decisions on drone integration. FAA officials said the agency intends to use the data to a greater extent in the future to advance integration. Without an analysis plan, however, FAA could miss opportunities to better use the data to inform the overall integration effort, such as to inform UAS operational standards. Also, FAA reports limited public information about how test sites' research relates to the agency's integration plans. Agency officials told GAO they were wary of sharing more information about the test sites, citing concerns about, among other things, protecting test site users' proprietary data. All test site representatives and most users GAO interviewed, however, said that more information on test sites' research would be helpful for UAS stakeholders' research efforts. According to FAA plans, the agency must rely on relationships with stakeholders across government and industry to ensure that integration efforts are harmonized. By sharing more information publicly, FAA could demonstrate to such stakeholders how the agency is fostering and using research to inform and advance integration. Further, with more information, more stakeholders may opt to use a test site to conduct their own research, thus potentially increasing data available to FAA to inform its integration decisions.

Why GAO Did This Study

UAS could provide significant economic and social benefits, for example by delivering packages or aiding in search and rescue missions. FAA is conducting a phased approach to incrementally integrate UAS safely into the national airspace. As directed by statute, FAA established UAS test sites to allow industry to assess the safety and feasibility of complex UAS operations, such as flying beyond an operator's line of sight. FAA has stated that this program provides research results and other data needed to reach full integration.

GAO was asked to review FAA's management of the test sites. This report examines, among other things: (1) the research conducted at FAA's designated UAS test sites, and (2) how FAA is leveraging and sharing information from the test site program to advance integration. GAO reviewed relevant statutes and regulations, reports, and FAA guidance; analyzed test sites' efforts, including flight test data submitted to FAA from 2015 through 2018; and interviewed FAA officials, test site representatives from all 7 test sites, and 18 test site users, selected to include a range of perspectives.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FAA (1) develop a data analysis plan for test site data and 2) share more information on how this program informs integration, while protecting proprietary data. FAA partially agreed with the first recommendation and agreed with the second. GAO added language to the first recommendation to address the issue that FAA raised, as discussed in this report.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT partially concurred with this recommendation. In DOT's official response dated March 2020, DOT officials indicated that FAA does not intend to collect any additional type of test site data, unless FAA funds new research or demonstrations. Further, officials noted that FAA has gathered data since the UAS test site program became operational in 2014, through several vehicles including details of flight tests entered into the Mission Logging System (MLS). Officials noted that FAA has and will continue to use data collected from the test sites to, among other things, better understand the challenges facing future UAS integration. We continue to believe that FAA implementing this recommendation would enable the agency to better leverage test site research and data to inform its decisions related to UAS integration. When we confirm what actions FAA has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FAA should develop a plan for analyzing currently-collected UAS test site data to determine how they could be used to advance UAS integration, and whether the collection of any additional test site data, within the agency's authority to request, could be useful for informing integration. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration: Office of the Administrator

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As directed by statute, FAA established unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test sites to allow industry to assess the safety and feasibility of complex UAS operations, such as flying beyond an operator's line of sight. FAA has stated that its UAS test site program provides research results and other data needed to reach full integration. In 2020, GAO reported that FAA provides limited information to the public, including stakeholders and test site users, about how the research at test sites helps to inform FAA's UAS integration efforts. FAA officials told GAO that they were wary of providing more public information about the test sites, based on concerns about potentially being perceived to be promoting the designated test sites and concerns about sharing data that could be proprietary. In GAO's assessment, however, it would be possible for FAA to share more information publicly about how this program fits into the agency's broader UAS integration effort without promoting any particular test site or sharing any proprietary information. Representatives from all seven test sites and many test site users in GAO's review (13 of 18) reported that publicly available information on research efforts at test sites is limited. Many users GAO spoke to (11 of 18) stated that FAA should include more information about the test sites on its website, and in FAA's planning documents. While FAA officials pointed to the FAA's UAS Test Sites website as the agency's main public outreach effort on this program, in examining the website, GAO found little description of how this program relates to the agency's broader integration plans and no discussion of desired outcomes from the research under way at test sites. Although some UAS stakeholders-such as users of test sites-may be aware of the research underway at test sites, the audience for UAS integration is larger and includes others such as those from the information technology and agricultural industries, whose stakeholders may be less familiar with FAA's efforts. Thus, improving FAA's public information about this program could increase the UAS stakeholders' awareness of test sites' capabilities, expertise, and services, and their understanding about how the program fits into FAA's broader integration efforts. Consequently, GAO recommended that FAA should publicly share more information on how this program informs integration while continuing to protect information deemed proprietary; and noted that this information could be shared, for example, on the agency's UAS Test Sites website. In 2020, GAO confirmed that FAA had taken sufficient action to publicly share more information on how the test site program informs integration by significantly improving its UAS Test Sites website. Specifically, FAA updated this website by adding descriptions of how this program fits into the agency's broader UAS integration goals, and of the ways in which the UAS test sites can support their users- such as local agencies and private companies-in conducting research and demonstrations related to various intended uses of UAS. In addition, FAA added context about some research and development areas on which the test sites are focusing their efforts, which relate to the agency's planned incremental phases of UAS integration and so should also support FAA in advancing such UAS technologies and concepts. By FAA sharing more information about how the program relates to the agency's UAS integration efforts, the broader community of UAS stakeholders should be better positioned to participate in the integration effort. Further, with more accessible information, more UAS stakeholders may choose to use a test site to conduct their own research. Given that one of the primary goals of this program is to provide information to FAA to help the agency develop the policies and standards required to address new and novel aspects of UAS flight operations, having more test site users could better position FAA to achieve this goal.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FAA should publicly share more information on how the test site program informs integration while continuing to protect information deemed proprietary. This information could be shared, for example, on the agency's UAS Test Sites website. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration: Office of the Administrator

 

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