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UAS in the US: 2014 GAO Report Sees Notable Gains, Room for Improvement

By Juliet Van Wagenen | December 18, 2014
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[Avionics Today 12-18-2014] An in-depth report on the FAA’s efforts to integrate Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) into national airspace found that, while gains have been made toward integration, the agency is falling behind other countries when it comes to imposing effective and encouraging regulation. The yearly report, researched and distributed by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), set its findings against the background of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, enacted in February 2012, which “required the development of regulations for safe integration of civil UAS into the national airspace by December 2015.” To put its finger on the pulse of the burgeoning global UAS industry, the GAO interviewed the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), FAA officials, the Department of Defense (DOD) and NASA, among other experts and industry stakeholders.

A group photo of aerial demonstrators at the United States Naval unmanned aerial vehicle air demonstration (2005)
A group photo of aerial demonstrators at the United States Naval unmanned aerial vehicle air demonstration (2005). Photo: Wikipedia

GAO believes the FAA has in fact, achieved significant progress since it began the process of putting regulations in place for UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS) in 2008. Most indicative of this is the achievement of nine of the 17 date-specified provisions set out in the 2012 Act that aim to allow for safe and complete integration of unmanned systems by 2015. While this progress has been hard-earned, GAO, stakeholders and other agencies see room for growth.

“While the FAA has completed several of these requirements, some key ones, including the publication of final small UAS rule, remain incomplete. As of December 2014, FAA had completed nine of the requirements, was in the process of addressing four, and had not yet made progress on four others. Some stakeholders told us in interviews that the FAA’s accomplishments to date are significant and were needed, but these stakeholders noted that the most important provisions of the 2012 Act have been significantly delayed or are unlikely to be achieved by the mandated dates,” Gerald L. Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at the GAO said in his statement of the report.

The FAA has taken steps to move integration forward in the past few years, including a 2013 roadmap that describes its three-phased approach to immersing UAS into the NAS on a five-year timeline. As of now, however, little integration has occurred and regulation is slow and cumbersome. Government operators must apply for special airworthiness certificates to operate in airspace while commercial operators are required to apply for an exemption under section 333 of the 2012 Act in order to use small UAS for business purposes. Exemptions are being doled out in the way of movie production, oil rig monitoring and other surveillance tasks, commercial operations are limited and this is driving the UAS market outside of the United States.

“Foreign countries are experiencing an increase in UAS use, and some have begun to allow commercial entities to fly UAS under limited circumstances. According to industry stakeholders, easier access to these countries’ airspace has drawn the attention of some U.S. companies that wish to test their UAS without needing to adhere to FAA’s administrative requirements for flying UAS at one of the domestically located test sites, or obtaining an FAA [Certificate of Airworthiness] COA,” said Dillingham.

An example of this is Google, whose Google X division revealed its Project Wing program earlier this year and has been testing its UAS package delivery system in remote Queensland, Australia. This lack of restrictive regulation outside of the U.S. is also set up against Canada’s recent announcement to ease regulations on commercial UAS use for devices under 25 kg, as well as a 2014 MITRE study that found that other countries, such as Japan and the United Kingdom, have much more progressive regulations in place, drawing industry interest to foreign airspace.

There is some progress being made in the way of UAS testing in U.S. airspace, however. The agency has set up six test sites at public entities that it views as locations for industry to safely access. But these test sites are shrouded in ambiguity.

“According to some of the test site operators we spoke to as part of our ongoing work, there is uncertainty about what research and development should be conducted to support the integration process,” said Dillingham, who continues on to state that the FAA is working with the DOD and MITRE in order to maximize the value of the six test sites. Still, operators aren’t widely encouraged to make use of them. “During our ongoing work, test site operators have told us that there needs to be incentives to encourage greater UAS operations at the test sites. FAA is, however, working on providing additional flexibility to the test sites to encourage greater use by industry. Specifically, FAA is willing to train designated airworthiness representatives for each test site,” Dillingham added.

These airworthiness professionals could help operators and companies better understand the best way to put the test sites to use and, therefore, encourage further research and development. And while some gains have been made in carrying out UAS Research and Development (R&D), such as the establishment of the FAA’s UAS Integration office or cooperative R&D agreements, all agree that the first step needs to be finalizing UAS rule.

“Both the FAA and UAS industry stakeholders have emphasize the importance of finalizing UAS regulations as unauthorized UAS operations in the national airspace continue to increase and present a safety risk to commercial and general aviation activities,” the report states.

Establishing clear rules and regulations will allow for safer skies for manned pilots and forge a definitive path for companies going forward when it comes to new UAS tech. The Huerta v. Pirker case won just last month establishes the FAA as the final governing body on UAS and therefore allows them to lawfully put forth and enforce regulation.

“The Pirker decision will have relevance in that it will sort of move UAVs into what we’ve always seen from the United State’s supreme court’s opinions; it is axiomatic that the FAA has complete regulatory authority over air safety and Pirker sort of confirms that as to this technology as well,” Paul J. Fraidenburgh, an associate at Buchalter Nemer who often advises clients on UAS regulation, said in a November interview with Avionics Magazine.

This decision pairs with all other FAA efforts and sets the stage for the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the FAA has mentioned it will issue soon, with a timeline for final rule on the horizon for late 2016 or early 2017. In the meantime, with other countries leaping ahead with regulation efforts, the GAO report seems to make it clear that a direct ruling can’t come soon enough.

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