The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review the efforts of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) efforts to integrate uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) or drones into the national airspace system.

GAO sought several information sources

As part of the analysis, the GAO interviewed FAA officials, eight participants in one of the FAA’s pilot programs, and 15 industry groups representing operators, manufacturers, and others. FAA planning documents and reports were also reviewed as part of this effort.

The FAA holds the responsibility of safely integrating drones into the national airspace. This is a complex network that includes airports, aircraft, and air traffic control facilities. 

According to the GAO report, the FAA developed numerous planning documents to manage their efforts to integrate drones but has yet to develop a comprehensive strategy to guide them. Officials from the FAA stated they are developing a drone integration strategy, but the release has been delayed multiple times. It is unclear whether the strategy will provide a comprehensive approach.

GAO report findings

The GAO found that FAA documents partially include four of the seven elements of a comprehensive strategy and miss entirely the other three elements. The current documents highlight activities that are complete, underway, and planned but do not identify drone integration goals and objectives and only partially include milestones and performance metrics. 

The FAA has not clearly communicated the requirements for drone operators’ requests to conduct advanced operations. Numerous stakeholders told GAO that the requirements are unclear and that conflicting information from different FAA offices has been provided. The FAA responded acknowledging that their process for reviewing operational requests is complex and that they will take steps to improve FAA guidance. 

The GAO made the following recommendations to the FAA for more explicit and comprehensive processes: 

  1. Develop a drone integration strategy that includes all elements of a comprehensive strategy 
  2. Evaluate its current documentation to identify options to communicate how applicants can satisfy drone operational request requirements more clearly and the FAA’s process for reviewing and approving operational requests

The FAA concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

Read the full report here.