The Department of Transportation was asked by some members of Congress to check in on the FAA to see if the agency was going to meet the September 2015 deadline for safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System.
With almost a year to go for overall approval, the DOT says things aren’t looking so good.
As far as small drones go, the ones most likely to be used by local TV stations, the report stated the FAA won’t meet its August deadline to issue its final ruling on their use. According to the audit, “FAA officials indicated that privacy concerns have been the primary contributor to this recent delay.”
The DOT audit also outlined two areas of concern for overall drone use.
First, because there are no pilots on board, a UAS cannot comply with the “see and avoid” requirements that underpin operational safety in the NAS. However, there is currently a lack of a mature UAS technology capable of automatically detecting other aircraft operating in nearby airspace and successfully maneuvering to avoid them. Experts we interviewed stated that “detect and avoid” is the most pressing technical challenge to integration.
Second, UAS must maintain an adequate link to ground control commands to ensure that pilots never lose control of their aircraft. However, UAS still lack the adequate technology to prevent “lost link” scenarios—disruptions between the ground based operator and the aircraft—which creates significant safety challenges for both controllers and operators. For example, in August 2010, the Navy temporarily lost contact with a UAS helicopter due to a software issue, which resulted in the aircraft flying into restricted airspace surrounding Washington, DC. Additionally, according to a report from the Aviation Safety Reporting System in March 2012, a UAS operating at an altitude of 20,000 feet lost the control link between the ground operator and the aircraft for several minutes. The unmanned aircraft descended to 19,000 feet without authorization from air traffic control
The audit also came to the conclusion the FAA needs to figure out how to make sure drones that do get airborne are safe to fly and also needs to establish both air traffic control procedures and an air traffic control training program.
Finally, FAA is not effectively managing its oversight of UAS operations. Although FAA established a UAS Integration Office, it has not clarified lines of reporting or established clear guidance for UAS regional inspectors on authorizing and overseeing UAS operations. Until FAA addresses these barriers, UAS integration will continue to move at a slow pace, and safety risks will remain.