Recognizing that Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is the fastest growing segment of the aviation industry and in response to a Presidential Memorandum, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiated the 3-year UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) in 2017. Through the IPP, FAA worked with selected State, local, and tribal governments, who partnered with private sector entities (e.g., UAS operators) to accelerate safe integration and help develop new rules to enable more complex UAS operations in the National Airspace System (NAS). After ending the IPP as planned in October 2020, FAA launched a follow-on program called BEYOND to address remaining UAS-related challenges, including operations beyond visual line of sight. Citing the importance of the IPP’s efforts, the Ranking Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation requested that we assess FAA’s IPP, including next steps. Accordingly, our audit objectives were to assess (1) the results of FAA’s IPP and (2) FAA’s plans for using those results, including how the Agency will incorporate them into its new program BEYOND.
What We Found
While FAA made progress advancing UAS operations through the IPP, results did not fully meet industry and participant expectations and integration challenges remain. Further, challenges with planning, data requirements, and the Agency’s organization hindered the IPP’s overall success. FAA also faced challenges balancing the need to ensure aviation safety with UAS innovation, especially given the complexity of proposed operations. In addition, issues coordinating across multiple FAA lines of business and Agency turnover contributed to participant frustration and program challenges. Finally, while FAA incorporated lessons learned and best practices into BEYOND, challenges that limited the IPP’s success remain. As a result, it is uncertain when FAA and industry will be positioned to enable operations beyond visual line of sight that are economically viable throughout the NAS.
We made six recommendations to improve FAA’s use of UAS IPP results, including in its current program, BEYOND. FAA concurred with all six of our recommendations and provided appropriate actions and planned completion dates.
No. 1 to FAA
Establish goals, milestones, and performance measures of success for the BEYOND program to guide and track Agency and participants’ progress toward achieving beyond visual line of sight operations.
No. 2 to FAA
Communicate to BEYOND stakeholders how program operational, societal and economic benefit data will be used, analyzed, and shared to inform new policies, safety reviews, and rulemaking, including the rule for UAS operations beyond visual line of sight.
No. 3 to FAA
Implement a process to periodically assess the data collected during BEYOND—annually at a minimum—to determine if it is providing needed information and make adjustments as necessary.
No. 4 to FAA
Provide stakeholders and the general public with non-proprietary information related to BEYOND results via the FAA website or other appropriate means.
No. 5 to FAA
Identify intra-agency points of connection and lines of authority responsible for approving and integrating new UAS technologies, evaluate options to improve working across lines of business, and implement the best option based on the Agency’s evaluation.
No. 6 to FAA
Evaluate the causes of IPP program manager turnover as well as the communication and transfer of knowledge, policies, and procedures to new program managers in the transition process, and implement actions to address those issues in BEYOND.