The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is being audited for the second time by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT IG) for its “approval and oversight processes” for drones.
The audit, which will begin in April 2017, will assess both the FAA’s processes for granting waivers and its “risk-based oversight” for entities that do have waivers under the Part 107 rulemaking for commercial drone operations. Specifically, the audit focuses on the waivers that permit drones to go beyond some of the basic limitations, including operating beyond line of sight or at night.
A DOT OIG memorandum about the audit says it’s “important that FAA’s waiver approval process does not result in prolonged delays, especially for operations already considered to be a low safety risk by the agency.”
The DOT IG conducted an initial audit of the FAA’s drone processes in December 2016, concluding the FAA “lacks a risk-based oversight process for UAS.” According to the memorandum for this second audit, the DOT IG says “it is still unclear what type of oversight the FAA will provide for this new technology, as we found that FAA lacks a robust data reporting and tracking system for UAS activity, and aviation safety inspectors received limited training and guidance on UAS oversight.”
The FAA has processed nearly 800,000 drone registrations since December 2015 when mandatory registration took effect. To date, the agency has received more than 1,000 applications from UAS operators requesting exemptions to the basic requirements and has granted more than 300 of them. But, as the number of UAS operations increases, the IG noted, the number of drone sightings by pilots has also “increased significantly, thus presenting safety risks to manned aircraft.”
Below is the full text of the DOT IG’s memorandum about the second audit:
“Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) represent a substantial economic opportunity for the United States. FAA recently forecast that the number of potential annual sales of UAS could nearly double to 4.3 million units by 2020. Since December 2015, FAA has processed almost 800,000 UAS registrations. However, as the number of UAS operations increases, UAS sightings by pilots have also increased significantly, thus presenting safety risks to manned aircraft and the traveling public.
“FAA has taken important steps to advance the safe integration of UAS in domestic airspace, including publishing a new rule for small UAS (i.e., systems weighing less than 55 pounds) in June 2016. However, the rule does not permit several potential uses for UAS that are highly valued by industry, such as operating beyond line of sight or at night. To accommodate these and other types of operations, the rule allows operators to apply for waivers from its provisions. According to FAA, since the rule was implemented in August 2016, the Agency has received over 1,000 applications for waivers and granted over 300 of them to UAS operators.
“As we reported in December 2016, FAA faced challenges in keeping pace with the increase in UAS exemption requests received before implementing the small UAS rule, resulting in the need for streamlined processes. Similarly, it is important that FAA’s waiver approval process does not result in prolonged delays, especially for operations already considered to be a low safety risk by the Agency. We also reported that FAA provided limited oversight of operators with exemptions and had not yet established a risk-based safety oversight process for UAS. It is still unclear what type of oversight FAA will provide for this new technology, as we found that FAA lacks a robust data reporting and tracking system for UAS activity, and aviation safety inspectors received limited training and guidance on UAS oversight.
“Given the significant safety implications of integrating UAS into the National Airspace System and the increasing number of both requested and approved UAS waivers, we are initiating an audit of FAA’s current approval and oversight processes for UAS waivers. Our audit objectives will be to assess FAA’s processes for: (1) granting waivers under the rule for small UAS operations, and (2) conducting risk-based oversight of UAS operators with waivers.
“We plan to begin the audit this month and will contact your audit liaison to schedule an entrance conference. We will conduct our work at FAA Headquarters, field offices, and UAS commercial operator sites across the country.”