Congress received a comprehensive audit report this week focused on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) progress integrating Unmanned Aviation Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS).  The audit report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) was developed over 18 months in response to a bipartisan request from the leadership of the Senate and House transportation committees.

The audit report confirmed that the FAA has missed numerous statutory deadlines regarding UAS integration and is not likely to meet Congress’ mandate that UAS be safely integrated into the NAS by September 30, 2015 when the current FAA authorization act expires.  The report’s top four findings are:

  1. FAA has not adopted technology standards that would enable UAS to detect and avoid other aircraft and that would guarantee reliable data links between ground stations and the unmanned aircraft they control.
  2. FAA has not adopted aircraft certification requirements, standard air traffic procedures, or a controller training program for managing UAS.
  3. FAA does not have a system that accurately tracks UAS accidents and does not have access to the U.S. military’s extensive UAS safety data and records.
  4. Ineffective management by FAA has delayed UAS integration and allowed safety problems to continue.

According to the report, FAA has approved about 300 public use requests for UAV operations by governmental entities.  The private sector, in turn, has received 18 experimental approvals and two approvals for specific UAS use in commercial operations.  Overall, more than 100 different unmanned aircraft types have received FAA approval to operate. Despite many regulatory uncertainties, FAA predicts that about 7,500 active UAS will be in operation in the U.S. within five years and that more than $89 billion will be invested in UAS worldwide over the next 10 years.

The report also confirms what many FAA observers have long understood – that FAA will not meet the August 2014 statutory deadline for issuing a final rule on small (under 55 pounds) UAS operations. Nor will FAA meet the September 2015 deadline for achieving safe UAS integration.  With Congress scheduled to consider reauthorizing the FAA and its programs next year, this lack of agency progress on UAS integration may result in Congress advancing specific UAS policies directly in statute.

In addition to unresolved privacy concerns, the report cites two major technical obstacles to UAS integration:  1)  the lack of UAS technology that would detect and automatically avoid nearby aircraft (“see and avoid” technology); and 2) the inability of existing technology to guarantee uninterrupted communication between ground-based operators and the aircraft – referred to as the “lost link” scenario.

The full text of the USDOT OIG report, issued on June 26, 2014, can be found here.