drone near jet (Jag_cz/Shuterstock.com)

Can the FAA ensure drone safety without better data?

With the number of recreational and commercial drones increasing, the risk associated with the unsafe operation of unmanned systems is also growing. But by how much? The Federal Aviation Administration isn't sure.

That's because the FAA has limited information on the unsafe use of small drones, the Government Accountability Office found.  In a May 24 report, GAO said the FAA's inability to positively identify small unmanned aircraft systems reported as flying too close to aircraft or airports impedes the agency's ability to effectively assess the safety of small UAS operations.

The small UAS discussed in the report are those weighing less than 55 pounds that are typically flown by pilots who keep the drone in their line of sight.  They are too small, the FAA said, to be picked up on radar, and aircraft pilots or people on the ground who spot them often can't accurately identify them.

FAA is taking steps to improve its data, GAO said. It is developing a web-based system where the public can report drones they consider a safety concern. It is also evaluating technologies that detect and identify UAS, which could improve its data on unsafe use.

The agency has a number of policies to address risk related to integrating small UAS into the national airspace -- from restricted airspace designations to operator and UAS certification and user training. Technology tools include sense-and-avoid systems, geofencing and detection via radar, radio frequency, acoustics as well as electro-optical and infrared signals, all in various states of implementation.

The FAA also has policies for safety risk management, but has not followed all its principles when it comes to small drones.  The agency did not, for example, "consistently analyze and assess safety risks in terms of their severity and likelihood," GAO said, adding that FAA officials told the watchdog agency that in some cases, it "did not have sufficient data to do so."

To help the FAA be better able to assess safety risk, GAO recommended it establish a way to ensure that its management of safety risks posed by small UAS operations follows all applicable principles and requirements in FAA’s policies. FAA concurred with the recommendation.

Read the full report here.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at smiller@gcn.com or @sjaymiller.

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