GAO says FAA needs better data on small UAS operations

By Patrick C. Miller | June 05, 2018

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should establish a procedure to more completely and accurately identify instances of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) being used unsafely in the national airspace.

That’s the primary conclusion of a report issued late last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the House Subcommittee on Aviation. The report is titled “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems: FAA Should Improve Its Management of Safety Risks.”

Heather Krause, director of the GAO’s physical infrastructure team which wrote the drone safety report, said that while the FAA collects data from reported sightings of potentially unsafe uses of drones—mostly from pilots and air traffic control facilities—the accuracy and completeness of the data is variable.

“That comes from the fact that drones can be definitively difficult to identify and they also aren’t typically picked up on radar,” she said. “What we have found is that they (the FAA) are taking a very incremental approach to doing this. Our report found ways they could enhance some of the steps they’re taking in terms of developing their standards and regulations, opportunities to improve how they approach their controls and oversight of potential safety risk.”

The GAO report concluded that the FAA didn’t consistently analyze and assess safety risks in terms of their severity and likelihood. According to the report, FAA officials told the GAO that in some cases, they didn’t have sufficient data. In cases where the FAA had sufficient data, it made estimates based on expert judgment, which is allowed under the agency's safety risk management policy.

The GAO report said, “Improved risk management practices would help FAA determine whether additional actions are needed to ensure the safety of the national airspace and provide FAA and other decision-makers with confidence that FAA is focusing on the most critical safety risks posed by small UAS.”

As an example, the GAO report notes that since 2014, there have been more than 6,000 sightings of drones flying near manned aircraft or airports. However, the FAA told GAO that it couldn’t verify that small UAS were involved in most of the sightings. “Such data limitations impede the agency's ability to effectively assess the safety of small UAS operations,” the report said.

As a result, the GAO recommends that the FAA administrator establish a mechanism—such as an internal review procedure—to ensure that the agency’s management of safety risks posed by small UAS operations in the national airspace follows all applicable principles and requirements in FAA's policies.

GAO wrote the report in response to questions raised by Congress and others regarding the unsafe use of small UAS and efforts by the FAA and other agencies to address the safety risks. GAO examined information available to FAA and the how the agency’s management of safety risks followed key principles of risk management. GAO reviewed FAA and other federal data on small UAS use from 2014 to 2018, as well as FAA and industry documents.