Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) represent a substantial economic and technological opportunity for the United States. To advance the safe integration of commercial UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published a rule for small UAS in June 2016. However, the rule does not permit several operations that are highly valued by industry but considered to be higher risk, such as operating beyond line of sight or over people. To accommodate these operations, the rule allows FAA to issue waivers. Given the significant safety implications of integrating UAS into the NAS and an increase in the number of both requested and approved UAS waivers, we initiated an audit of FAA’s approval and oversight processes for UAS waivers. Specifically, our objectives were to assess FAA’s processes for (1) granting waivers under the rule for small UAS operations and (2) conducting risk-based oversight for UAS operators with waivers.
What We Found
FAA established processes for reviewing and granting waivers but has experienced difficulties obtaining sufficient information, managing the volume of requests, and communicating with applicants, particularly in explaining reasons for denying requests. As a result, FAA’s Flight Standards office has disapproved 73 percent of operational waiver requests (e.g., over people and beyond line of sight), and a significant backlog of waiver requests to operate in airspace with manned aircraft exists. Although the Agency has improved its guidance and processes, FAA may continue to experience difficulty with review timeliness and responsiveness, given the growing demand for UAS operations, which could increase the risk that operators may continue to bypass established processes and operate without Agency approval. Further, FAA is still in the early stages of developing a risk-based oversight system for UAS operations. While FAA has developed guidance for planning annual inspections, few UAS operators have received inspections to verify their compliance with regulations and the terms of their waivers. Moreover, the Agency’s ability to perform meaningful risk-based surveillance is hindered by limited access to detailed UAS operator, FAA inspection, and risk data. As a result, FAA does not have assurance of operators’ compliance with regulations, is not well-positioned to develop an oversight strategy, and is missing opportunities to gather information that will help shape rulemaking and policies.
We made eight recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administrator regarding strengthening the Agency’s review and oversight processes for UAS waivers. FAA concurred with seven of our recommendations and partially concurred with one recommendation.
Closed on 03.04.2020
No. 1 to FAA
Conduct a workforce assessment of the staff assigned to review airspace waiver and authorization requests to determine if Air Traffic Organization (ATO) staffing is adequate, and take appropriate action based on the results.
Closed on 10.15.2019
No. 2 to FAA
Assess performance statistics for ATO's non-automated airspace waiver request process to determine if establishing volume and timeliness goals would enhance the process and if so, develop and implement these goals.
Closed on 04.22.2019
No. 3 to FAA
Use performance metrics for Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) to evaluate the system's effect on application processing volume and timeliness and take appropriate action based on the results.
Closed on 03.06.2019
No. 4 to FAA
Develop and implement internal controls to improve consistency in the use of standard template responses when corresponding with applicants regarding requests for information.
Closed on 08.28.2019
No. 5 to FAA
Update National Flight Standards Work Program Guidelines to require field offices perform inspections on a sample of commercial UAS operators in their area for a 2-year period, which will increase available inspection data for creating a risk profile of UAS.
Closed on 04.17.2019
No. 6 to FAA
Using available inspection and risk data, develop a baseline risk assessment profile of small commercial UAS operators, including those operators with waivers and airspace authorizations, to inform inspector surveillance planning decisions, as well as procedures to periodically update this risk assessment profile using future inspection data.
Closed on 08.28.2019
No. 7 to FAA
Issue guidance to field offices regarding where and how to obtain Agency information on waiver and/or authorization-holding UAS operators, to help inform their inspection planning.
Closed on 02.12.2019
No. 8 to FAA
Provide clarifying guidance to UAS operators on FAA's website or by other means regarding the small UAS rule provision relating to operations "over people."