The Federal Aviation Administration has years of data on operating drones that it could share with stakeholders, auditors said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been collecting huge amounts of data on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles—better known as drones—for the last five years. But that information isn’t being shared with stakeholders or properly used by the agency, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
Further, as of the end of 2019, FAA has yet to develop a plan to use all that data, despite officials saying such a document would be useful.
The full integration of drones into the nation’s airspace—characterized by the widespread use of unmanned flights without prior approval from the Federal Aviation Administration—has been a goal of federal regulators for nearly a decade. As part of this push, FAA designated seven test sites for pilots to try out new uses for unmanned craft, including aerial surveillance, package delivery and transporting people.
“FAA’s vision for fully integrating UAS into the national airspace system entails UAS operating safely and routinely—i.e., without requiring prior approval for UAS flights—in the same airspace as manned aircraft,” the GAO report reads. “While safety is FAA’s paramount concern, the integration of UAS is important because of the potential economic benefits that progress in UAS integration could bring, including more investment in uses such as large passenger operations, as well as the potential safety benefits, such as more effective firefighting and other disaster response efforts.”
From 2015 to 2018, pilots flew some 15,000 test flights at these sites, and FAA has been collecting data on all of them. That data centers on useful research areas, such as avoiding in-air collisions and other safety requirements.
GAO auditors found that the data being collected by FAA is “sufficiently reliable,” however that data is not being shared with outside stakeholders that could benefit. GAO officials also dinged the agency for not having an analysis plan that clearly outlines how FAA officials plan to use the data internally.
“To date, FAA has only used data from test sites in a few cases to directly inform the agency’s UAS integration efforts,” auditors wrote. For example, FAA officials used research data from one of the test sites to inform its noise certification standard. However, the agency did not use data collected through the mission logging system, or MLS, the primary database for the integration program.
FAA officials told GAO they plan to use MLS data more proactively in the near future, including certifying safety cases tested at the sites and for the development and evaluation of the unmanned aerial system traffic management, or UTM, system.
Officials also said they are using other kinds of “data” to assess the program, including conversations with test site users and “information shared in meetings.”
“According to FAA officials, the test site program supports UAS integration not only by providing industry stakeholders with an avenue for testing complex UAS operations and concepts, but also by helping FAA officials stay informed about issues related to integration,” the report states.
All of this data is integral to the FAA’s 2018 UAS Integration Roadmap, which puts the test site program at the front and center of the agency’s integration plan.
“Specifically, according to the 2018 UAS Integration Roadmap, the test site program plays a critical role in UAS integration as one of the program’s goals is to provide information so that FAA can determine technical and operational trends that could support safety-related decision making for integration, and develop policy and standards required to address new and novel aspects of UAS flight operations,” according to the report.
However, “While FAA has indicated plans to analyze and use test site data in the future, it has not yet developed a data analysis plan to do so. FAA officials told us that having an analysis plan for MLS data could be useful and that—as of September 2019— they were considering creating such as plan but had not taken steps to do so,” GAO said.
And test site users appeared to be clamoring for more data, as well.
“Agency officials told GAO they were wary of sharing more information about the test sites, citing concerns about, among other things, protecting test site users’ proprietary data,” according to the report. “All test site representatives and most users GAO interviewed, however, said that more information on test sites’ research would be helpful for UAS stakeholders’ research efforts.”
Data problems aside, “all test site representatives stated that FAA has improved both its management of the UAS test sites and collaboration with representatives in recent years as the program has matured,” auditors wrote.
In the early days of the program, test site users reported a significant amount of turnover for FAA managers. FAA officials interviewed by GAO agreed this was a problem, especially early on, as the agency “had not established test sites before.”
Since then, FAA has largely fixed these issues, according to users GAO interviewed.
“Specifically, FAA has solicited input from test site representatives on various issues related to UAS integration and helped facilitate information sharing between the test sites and various FAA lines of business,” according to the report.
However, users reported three other outstanding issues FAA could help with: lack of guidance on FAA research priorities; a complex and lengthy process for getting a certificate of waiver or authority to conduct certain research activities at the test sites; and difficulties generating enough revenue at the sites to maintain operations.