The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a 55-page report containing a series of recommendation for improving the FAA’s integration of drones into the National Airspace System (NAS).  In conducting this study, the GAO analyzed FAA’s planning documents and reports, and conducted interviews with FAA officials, participants in FAA pilot programs, and industry groups. 

The report acknowledges the fact that the  FAA has made a great deal of progress in authorizing low risk drone operations under Part 107.  Surprisingly, however, it is the GAO’s conclusion that the FAA does not have any comprehensive strategy for full integration of UAS into the NAS, particularly when it comes to complex operations and flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).  According to the GAO:

Until FAA develops a strategy that incorporates all key elements of a comprehensive strategy, FAA risks not having the information it needs to effectively lead and manage its drone integration efforts, make well-informed decisions, and direct limited resources to specific purposes where they could be most beneficial.

The GAO also echoed a complaint expressed by many in the industry, that the FAA has not clearly communicated the requirements for complex drone operations to industry, making it difficult for them to “provide FAA with the quality information it needs to assess their requests.”  Similarly, the GAO faulted the FAA for not being transparent with industry as to exactly which FAA stakeholders will be involved in approving complex operations, resulting in confusion and difficulty in managing the review process. 

The GAO’s final criticism involves the FAA’s failure to use a formal system to review and implement “lessons learned” from the many advanced pilot programs it administers.  This makes it difficult for the FAA to “leverage the knowledge and experience it has gained from previously approved operations” into future integration activities. 

The GAO makes four recommendations that the FAA should take to remedy this situation.  First, the FAA should develop a drone integration strategy “that includes all seven elements of a comprehensive strategy.”  The GAO claims that the following elements were missing from FAA’s current strategy: a clearly defined mission statement, the methods used to overcome the problem of NAS integration, clearly defined goals and objectives, a complete discussion of milestones and performance measures, an analysis of the resources needed, a complete  definition of the problem, and a plan for the FAA’s internal coordination of efforts. 

Second, the GAO recommends that the FAA evaluate its current documentation to identify ways to more clearly communicate how applicants can satisfy drone operational request requirements, and communicate FAA’s internal process for reviewing and approving operational requests.

The GAO’s third recommendation is that the FAA develop and document a formal lessons-learned process for its drone integration activities that includes data collection, analysis, validation, documentation, and application, to ensure the efficient allocation of time and resources. 

Fourth, the FAA should also implement this formal lessons learned process to guide its current activities in conducting Part 107 waiver reviews and the BEYOND program. This report clearly shows the value of having an independent third party come in and conduct a comprehensive review of major government initiatives. Between managing its aging computer systems, revising how aircraft are certified, supporting the expansion of urban air mobility, and drone integration, the FAA clearly has a lot on its plate.  The GAO has given a sound analysis, which the Department of Transportation agrees with, to keep the FAA on track and speed the process.  Hopefully, this effort will result in a more streamlined process to advance the integration of drones into the National Airspace System.