Last week, a new audit report was released regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) unmanned aircraft system (UAS or drone) waiver process. According to the audit, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has found room for improvement. In particular, the FAA’s timeliness in response to waiver requests could improve.

The audit was conducted between May 2017 and September 2018, focusing on the FAA’s methods of approving waivers under the Small UAS Part 107 regulations and conducting risk-based oversight of remote pilots with waivers. In the OIG’s summary of findings, it says that the FAA has “established processes for reviewing and granting waivers but has experienced difficulties in obtaining sufficient information, managing the volume of requests and communicating with applicants, particularly in explaining reasons for denying requests.”

While the OIG did point out that the FAA has improved its guidance and processes for UAS Part 107 waivers, the growing demand for UAS operations will only create more difficulty with review timeliness and responsiveness. In turn, this could increase the risk that operators may simply continue to bypass established processes and operate drones without FAA approval.

That possibility leads to the OIG’s assessment of the FAA’s risk-based oversight system, which states that the FAA’s “ability to perform meaningful risk-based surveillance is hindered by limited access to detailed UAS operator, FAA inspection and risk data. As a result, [the] FAA does not have assurance of operators’ compliance with regulations, is not well-positioned to develop an oversight strategy, and is missing opportunities to gather information that will help shape rulemaking and policies.”

Therefore, the OIG provided the following recommendations:

  1. Assess the workforce tasked with reviewing waiver and authorization requests to determine if Air Traffic Organization (ATO) staffing is adequate, and take appropriate action as needed.
  2. Assess the performance of the ATO’s non-automated airspace waiver request process to determine if volume and timeliness goals would improve the process, and if so, implement these goals.
  3. Implement performance metrics for the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) to evaluate its effect on application processing volume and timeliness, and take appropriate action as needed.
  4. Create internal controls to improve consistency in standard template responses used to correspond with applicants regarding requests for information.
  5. Update National Flight Standards Work Program Guidelines to require field offices to perform inspections on a sample of commercial drone operators in their area for a two-year period (designed to increase available inspection data for creating a risk profile of UAS).
  6. Develop a baseline risk assessment profile of small commercial drone operators to inform inspector surveillance planning decisions, as well as procedures to periodically update this profile.
  7. Issue guidance to field offices on how to obtain FAA information on waiver- and/or authorization-holding UAS operators (designed to help inform their inspection planning).
  8. Provide clarifying guidance to UAS operators regarding the small UAS rule’s provision relating to operations in the areas above people.

The FAA plans to complete all of these items by August 31, 2019, except for recommendation number five; the FAA says it does not agree “with the need to conduct an additional two years’ worth of sample inspections to accumulate inspection data.” However, it did agree to implement “new items for UAS oversight during fiscal year 2019 and include [those] items in its National Work Program Guidelines by August 31, 2019” which the OIG says meets the intent of this recommendation.