Rulemaking Under Pressure
Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Measuring Progress and Addressing Potential Privacy Concerns Would Facilitate Integration Into the National Airspace System
U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Report to Congressional Requesters. GAO-12-981. Sept. 18, 2012. www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-981.
In 2012, the U.S. Congress enacted requirements and deadlines for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to safely accelerate the routine operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with existing air traffic in national airspace. Most of the requirements are to be met by the end of 2015.
The GAO is watching FAA’s progress, but according to this study report, FAA is not monitoring its own progress well enough.
“FAA, in coordination with stakeholders, has begun making progress toward completing those requirements, but has missed one deadline and could miss others,” the report says. “Many of the requirements entail significant work, including completing planning efforts and issuing a final rule for small UAS. … While FAA has taken steps to meet them, it is uncertain when the national airspace system will be prepared to accommodate UAS, given that these efforts are occurring simultaneously and without monitoring to assess the quality of progress over time toward the deadlines Congress established.”
Although the U.S. market for UAS is currently dominated by the military and government agencies, the report says that an industry forecast predicts the emergence of extensive civilian and commercial uses. These include “pipeline, utility and farm fence inspections; vehicular traffic monitoring; real-estate and construction-site photography; relaying telecommunication signals; fishery protection and monitoring; and crop dusting. FAA’s goal is to eventually permit, to the greatest extent possible, routine UAS operations in the national airspace system while ensuring safety,” the report says. “As the list of potential uses for UAS grows, so do the concerns about how they might affect existing military and non-military aviation, as well as concerns about how they might be used.”
Currently, FAA authorizes use of UAS on a case-by-case basis, mainly to government organizations through a process called granting a certificate of waiver or authorization (COA), and to some private sector operators for experimental purposes via special airworthiness certificates. As the UAS fleet and number of operators grows, FAA will be faced with merging the unmanned aircraft into airspace that averages 100,000 flights a day, including commercial air carriers, general aviation and military aircraft.
“In 2008, we reported that UAS could not meet the aviation safety requirements developed for manned aircraft and that UAS posed several obstacles to operating safely and routinely in the national airspace system,” the report says. “FAA and others have continued their efforts to address these obstacles, but many still remain, including:
- “The inability for UAS to detect, sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects in a manner similar to ‘see and avoid’ by a pilot in a manned aircraft [for recent developments concerning this issue, see ‘Pressure Gradient,’ ASW, 10/12, p. 16];
- “Vulnerabilities in the command and control of UAS operations;
- “The limited human factors engineering incorporated into UAS technologies;
- “Unreliable UAS performance;
- “The lack of technological and operational standards needed to guide the safe and consistent performance of UAS;
- “The lack of final regulations to guide the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system; [and,]
- “The transition to NextGen [the Next Generation Air Transportation System].” NextGen is a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) to add capabilities that make air transportation safer and more reliable, increase the air traffic capacity of the NAS, and reduce the impact of aviation on the environment, FAA says.
FAA has undertaken several initiatives for safely folding UAS into the NAS. They fall into four broad categories.
The first is a comprehensive plan and road map. This includes a phased-in approach to, and timeline for, the integration and the establishment of a process to develop certification, flight standards and air traffic requirements at UAS test ranges.
“To date, FAA has not developed measures for assessing the various efforts to achieve safe integration by September 2015,” the report says. “The 2012 act [detailing FAA’s requirements for UAS integration] specifies content for a more comprehensive plan than what was laid out in the two-page road map, but it does not set forth any expectation for monitoring to assess the quality of progress over time toward meeting the range of activities to be outlined in the plan.
“Our [GAO’s] Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government provide the overall framework for establishing and maintaining internal control and for identifying and addressing major performance and management challenges and areas at greatest risk of fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. One of those standards is monitoring, which is an internal control designed to assess the quality of performance over time. This internal control should generally be designed to assure that ongoing monitoring occurs in the course of normal operations and that it is performed continually and is ingrained in the agency’s operations. In light of the time frames and complicated tasks ahead, the absence of regular monitoring precludes the agency and Congress from assessing progress toward completion of the 2012 act requirements.”
The second category involves the COA process. The report says, “FAA has changed the existing COA process … including taking steps to expedite COAs for public safety entities and finalizing agreements with government agencies to expedite the COA or waiver process.” Among other types of streamlining, the length of UAS authorization has been extended from 12 months to 24 months, so users do not have to reapply as frequently.
Third, “FAA has taken steps to develop, but has not yet established, a program to integrate UAS at six test ranges, as required by the 2012 act. … FAA expects data obtained from these test ranges will contribute to the continued development of standards for the safe and routine integration of UAS.”
FAA’s request for comments about test ranges, published in the Federal Register, drew 227 responses from Congress, state and local governments, industry, academia and individuals. The agency now finds itself with a collection of varied, if not conflicting, suggestions. “The comments addressed questions such as what certification requirements should be set for aircraft as part of the test ranges, who should manage the airspace and what restrictions should be placed on those using the test ranges, and where test ranges should be located,” the report says. “For example, FAA has proposed outsourcing the management of the test ranges; however, some commenters preferred FAA or another public entity to maintain oversight responsibility. Some commenters also said that test ranges should be selected based on locations with existing facilities and infrastructure, given the absence of any funding available for the set-up, management or oversight of the test ranges.”
The fourth category falls under the head of rulemaking. “While FAA has efforts under way supporting a rulemaking for small UAS, as required by the 2012 act, it is uncertain whether FAA will be able to meet the established deadline,” the report says.
The report says that, although FAA has made progress toward meeting the requirements of the 2012 act, “those requirements that remain will require significant work from the agency to meet the established deadlines. FAA has reorganized to provide more focus on its UAS integration efforts; however, because the reorganization has not yet been fully implemented, it remains unclear whether it will provide the support needed to complete the work.
“FAA’s UAS efforts rely on expertise and resources from several offices within FAA, such as the Aviation Safety Organization, the Air Traffic Organization, the Research and Development Integration Office, the NextGen Office and the federal multi-agency Joint Planning and Development Office. FAA has reorganized its office that oversees UAS activities several times over the past few years but had not previously assigned a single and visible leader to this effort. We have previously reported the need for stable leadership at FAA for major aviation efforts. More recently, FAA has taken steps to provide the organizational leadership needed to facilitate progress to safely accelerate UAS integration into the national airspace system.
“In March 2012, FAA assigned an executive manager for its newly created UAS Integration Office, which is expected to combine UAS-related activities from the agency’s Air Traffic Organization and Aviation Safety Organization. However, as of July 2012, the UAS Integration Office had not yet been finalized within FAA and no employees had been officially assigned to the UAS Integration Office. FAA officials told us that they expect approximately 50 federal employees and contractors eventually will be assigned to the office; however, the officials are still evaluating the number of personnel needed.”
The report discusses other privacy and security issues that might further delay the acceptance of UAS in FAA’s domain.
UAS are potentially capable of providing some kinds of surveillance data at far less cost than “spy” satellites. “Recently, members of Congress, a civil liberties organization and others expressed concern that the potential increased use of small UAS for surveillance and other purposes in the national airspace system has potential privacy implications,” the report says. “Many stakeholders we interviewed projected how past Supreme Court cases that address privacy issues related to government surveillance might apply to UAS. While the Supreme Court has not addressed privacy issues related to governmental UAS surveillance, the court has, however, upheld several instances involving government aerial surveillance from manned aircraft.”
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is charged with addressing risks, threats and vulnerabilities in transportation — including non-military UAS. “According to a TSA official, it recently reviewed its UAS-related advisories and determined that they are still applicable,” the report says. “However, TSA has not provided information on specific steps it has taken to mitigate the potential threats but believes its current practices are sufficient to address UAS security. …
“Security remains a significant issue that could be exacerbated with an increase in the number of UAS. TSA’s practices might be sufficient in the current UAS environment of limited operations taking place under closely controlled conditions, but these controlled conditions will change as FAA and others continue to work toward allowing routine UAS operations in the national airspace system. Without an assessment of TSA’s current security practices, TSA is not equipped to know whether any changes to its practices are needed. … For example, TSA has not yet taken steps to develop security requirements for UAS ground control stations, which are the UAS equivalent of cockpits.”
Another perceived threat is the possible jamming of the global positioning system (GPS) broadcasts that enable the UAS pilot or autonomous piloting systems to navigate. The report says, “In a GPS jamming scenario, the UAS could potentially lose its ability to determine its location, altitude and the direction in which it is traveling. Low-cost devices that jam GPS signals are prevalent. According to one industry expert, GPS jamming would become a larger problem if GPS is the only method for navigating a UAS. This problem can be mitigated by having a second or redundant navigation system onboard the UAS that is not reliant on GPS, which is the case with larger UAS typically operated by [the Department of Defense] and [the Department of Homeland Security].”
In its conclusions, the report says, “FAA faces the daunting task of ensuring that all of the various efforts within its own agency, as well as across agencies and other entities, will align and converge in a timely fashion. The pace of progress toward UAS integration that occurred prior to the 2012 act and questions about the agency’s ability to meet deadline requirements raise concerns about when UAS integration in the national airspace system will be achieved. Incorporating regular monitoring will help to assess progress toward goals identified in the comprehensive plan and five-year road map that can help FAA understand what has been achieved and what remains to be done.”
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