The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently issued an incredibly critical report of the FAA, in which it said the agency has “limited knowledge of where UAS actually operate and limited means to oversee [commercial] operators.”
The report was written by DOT Assistant Inspector General Matthew Hampton. Hampton spent a year, from October 2015 to October 2016, overseeing an audit of the FAA’s oversight of commercial drone operations in the United States.
The DOT claims in the report that the FAA created a fast-tracked process for granting commercial licenses to drone pilots, which led to quick turnarounds on licenses but poor policies when it comes to assessing the potential knowledge and flying capabilities of the pilots licensed.
It seems to us like the FAA was probably tasked with an impossible job: to simultaneously ensure that commercial drone pilots in the U.S. were flying safely, while also ensuring that the U.S. commercial drone business was not overly burdened in a way that would hinder growth.
(Of course, we’re just speculating here—we don’t know for sure that the FAA didn’t want to stand in the way of growth. But given the global competition, it doesn’t seem like much of a leap to think the U.S. government wouldn’t want to stand in the way of quick, competitive progress in the drone industry.)
According to the report, the DOT seems to think that the FAA erred a little too much on the side of allowing for progress, and should have done much more on the regulatory side.
The report finds that the quick turnaround of licenses led to poor tracking procedures, and also meant that pilots did not necessarily fully understand the regulations and requirements they needed to know in order to fly safely.
Here is a direct quote from the DOT report with some more details:
“[Streamling procedures allowed] FAA to increase its processing rate, and the rate of exemptions granted increased over five-fold in 1 month. However, FAA’s process does not verify that operators actually meet or understand the conditions and limitations of their exemptions either before or after the application is approved.”
But it’s not just the operators who are found at fault in the report.
Hampton also finds that FAA staff doesn’t have the training required to understand the complexities required to fly drones commercially, and have not themselves received the training needed to understand how to regulate the flight of a UAS:
“FAA safety inspectors have received only limited UAS-related training and guidance. For example, as of April 2016, there were no formal, instructor-led training courses and only two outdated online courses available to inspectors focused on UAS technology.”
So how can they be expected to regulate them?
The report concludes with a list of recommendations, which includes comprehensive drone training for inspectors, the development of risk-based oversight procedures, and the periodic testing of commercial drone operators.
The truth is that none of this should be all that surprising, given how quickly the drone industry has exploded onto the scene, and how much catch-up governments all over the world, not just in the United States, have had to do just to wrap their heads around what the advent of the sUAS means for our airspaces.
With drones and drone use changing all the time, there are sure to be more gaps between regulation and safety, with drone capabilities constantly outstripping drone regulation. It will certainly be a fascinating ride as government agencies work toward creating regulatory systems that are not overly prohibitive, and actually function to keep our skies safe.
We know the FAA is preparing the release of more rules, but we can only guess that those will just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the DOT would like to see in place. Certainly the FAA is hustling to get safety information out there (check out our recent post on an FAA Holiday Safety Video, for example) but the jury is out on these bigger changes proposed by the DOT.
If you’d like to learn more about the DOT report, here is a link to the report itself, entitled (pretty provocatively, it seems to us), “FAA Lacks a Risk-Based Oversight Process for Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”