UAS operators will be facing greater oversight and inspections from local Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO) under a new National Policy recently issued by the FAA. The document requires all FSDOs to immediately update their 2019 National Work Program Guidelines to include new Required Surveillance Work Activities.

Prior to this new notice, FSDO’s had limited requirements for conducting surveillance of UAS activities. This was due to the “lack of demonstrable risk UAS posed to the National Airspace System (NAS) when compared to known risks in General Aviation (GA) and transport aircraft.” See FAA Notice N 8900.504. However, over the past year, the FAA has been reviewing data from UAS operations, and has “developed a more robust risk profile for UAS.” According to the FAA:

The analysis indicates UAS do pose potential risks to air transportation due to UAS sightings in communities bordering airport approach and departure paths. Additional potential risks were identified from noncompliant operations that would require local analysis to target, and noncompliant operators also pose potential risk to firefighting, law enforcement, and emergency response efforts. In consideration of these potential risks, specific conditions and targeting mechanisms were determined to be the best risk-based approach to expanding UAS surveillance opportunities as part of a broader UAS oversight strategy.

See FAA Notice N 8900.504, § 6.

Under this new system, when near mid-air collisions, accidents, incidents or compliance and enforcement actions reach a certain threshold, FSDOs must undertake additional Required Surveillance Work Activities. Inspectors are instructed to “analyze the reports for root causes and common elements (e.g., locations, times, and events) that yield the best surveillance opportunities.” In addition, the Notice indicates that “airports experiencing significant increase in the number of UAS sightings will be targeted for priority surveillance.” Finally, FSDOs are instructed to conduct a UAS site visit “in support of enforcement actions against any UAS operations that interfere with wildfire, law enforcement, or emergency response.”

The FAA’s compliance philosophy is built on three pillars: education, oversight, and enforcement. The FAA has put a great deal of emphasis on education over the past five years, and has had some success in pursuing high profile enforcement actions. However, FAA oversight of UAS operations has been weak.

It is good to see that the FAA’s “risk based approach” to UAS operations includes continuous reevaluation of safety data. An increase in risk requires additional steps to mitigate the risk. As a result, this new commitment by the FAA to engage in more robust, targeted oversight at the local level is a welcome development.