The US Government Accountability Office (GOA) has identified training and law enforcement coordination challenges to the safe operation of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in a report delivered to the Department of Transportation (DOT) on 17 October 2019. It warns if the Federal Aviation Administration does not more fully address these issues, it might not be positioned to effectively respond to UAS incidents.
The GAO report examines the integration of small UAS operations into FAA’s safety oversight framework. It examines: (1) how FAA’s aviation safety inspectors conduct small UAS compliance and enforcement, and challenges they face in doing so, and (2) the extent to which FAA is planning for compliance and enforcement in an evolving UAS environment. The report reviews relevant statutes and regulations, FAA guidance and reports; and interviewed FAA officials including headquarters and aviation safety inspectors at 11 FAA district offices selected to obtain geographic distribution and other criteria. GAO also interviewed FAA law enforcement special agents and selected state or local law enforcement agencies in each district.
The use of small UAS—those weighing less than 55 pounds—continues to grow. As part of its safety mandate, FAA regulates and oversees UAS operations’ compliance, which includes prohibiting small UAS operators from endangering the life or property of another, among other things. Recent airport closures attributed to UAS sightings highlight the unique challenges small UAS pose to aviation safety oversight.
FAA safety inspectors questioned by the GAO said that law enforcement is an important source of information when they investigate potentially unsafe small unmanned aircraft systems’ (UAS) operations. The inspectors also told GAO that they take actions to educate operators or enforce penalties, in line with FAA policies, but that they face several challenges, including obtaining key information for investigations. Inspectors explained that of the multiple sources that may provide information for UAS investigations, reports from state and local law enforcement generally provide the most useful and actionable information. However, most law enforcement stakeholders GAO met with (9 of 11) stated that officers may not know how to respond to UAS incidents or what information to share with FAA. While FAA has articulated the pivotal role local law enforcement can play, and has developed resources for these entities, FAA has not consistently communicated this information to its law enforcement partners. For example, while about half of the inspectors told us they regularly conduct outreach to law enforcement agencies, the remainder said their efforts have been limited. Without a clear approach to communicate to the tens of thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies across the country, FAA does not have reasonable assurance these agencies are armed with knowledge they need to help FAA identify and address unsafe UAS operations.
The GAO report recommends three actions:
- The FAA should identify UAS-specific education and training needs for FAA inspectors, and develop appropriate training to address any needs identified
- The FAA should develop an approach to more effectively communicate key information to local law enforcement agencies regarding their expected role with regard to small UAS safety oversight
- The FAA should identify existing or new data and information needed to evaluate oversight activities and develop a mechanism for capturing these data as needed.
The GAO report concludes:
“As the use of small UAS expands and FAA continues to develop regulations authorizing additional types of UAS operations, the agency has engaged in a variety of activities to further the integration of small UAS. However, if FAA does not more fully address training and law enforcement coordination challenges, inspectors might not be positioned to effectively respond to UAS incidents. For example, without sufficient training, inspectors may not be equipped with the information they need to investigate and ensure compliance with relevant small UAS regulations. In addition, because law enforcement agencies are unfamiliar with FAA’s expectations of their role in small UAS compliance and enforcement, it is important that FAA effectively communicate and disseminate key information to the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country. Without assurance that local law enforcement agencies know how to share information about unsafe UAS use with the FAA, the agency may be missing opportunities to address incidents that could endanger public safety. Finally, FAA has not fully taken steps necessary to assess and adjust its oversight activities moving forward. More fully identifying data and information needs and developing a mechanism to capture this data, if needed, would better position the agency to adapt to the changing dynamics of an evolving UAS environment. Identifying and using quality, relevant, and accessible data to assess compliance and enforcement activities will better position FAA to track its progress, identify trends, and determine whether to adjust or tailor efforts in maintaining the safety of the national airspace as increasingly complex UAS operations are allowed.”
In response, FAA officials said they will adjust their efforts moving forward based on semi-annual assessments of data. The agency, however, has not fully analyzed existing UAS safety data to identify trends in UAS incidents, and officials acknowledge these data have limitations (e.g., UAS data entries cannot be easily identified). In addition, FAA does not currently have plans to determine what existing or new data or information could help inform whether FAA’s oversight efforts are working as intended. Taking steps to identify and obtain key data will enable FAA to assess its existing approach and determine what further activities, if any, it should undertake to ensure safety. These steps will be important as the number and type of UAS operations the agency is responsible for overseeing expands.
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