Report: The FAA is not on track to safely allow commercial drone use next year

Congress gave the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration a clear directive in 2012: Figure out the rules and standards it needs for commercial drones to safely take to the skies by Sept. 30, 2015. But a government audit released by the Office of the Inspector General Monday indicated that deadline might not be possible to meet.

Since 2012, the FAA has taken steps like designating six test sites for flying unmanned aerial systems (UAS) over American soil. But it has hit snags like a ruling saying it has no jurisdiction over drones. It has also taken confusing measures, such as grounding small drone operators while allowing BP to use them for oil operations.

The inspector general has four main reasons to believe the FAA will not meet the 2015 deadline. According to the audit:

First, following many years of working with industry, FAA has not reached consensus on standards for technology that would enable UAS to detect and avoid other aircraft and ensure reliable data links between ground stations and the unmanned aircraft they control.

Second, FAA has not established a regulatory framework for UAS integration, such as aircraft certification requirements, standard air traffic procedures for safely managing UAS with manned aircraft, or an adequate controller training program for managing UAS.

Third, FAA is not effectively collecting and analyzing UAS safety data to identify risks. This is because FAA has not developed procedures for ensuring that all UAS safety incidents are reported and tracked or a process for sharing UAS safety data with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the largest user of UAS.

Finally, FAA is not effectively managing its oversight of UAS operations. Although FAA established a UAS Integration Office, it has not clarified lines of reporting or established clear guidance for UAS regional inspectors on authorizing and overseeing UAS operations.

The audit names a number of other critiques, including a failure to establish expectations for the six test sites and its establishing of soft target dates instead of firm deadlines. It concludes that now, while the number of drones is still limited, is the time to establish firm rules and study drones’ impact closely.