IG Faults FAA Oversight of Commercial Drone Exemptions

 - December 8, 2016, 1:01 PM
Shown is the Project Wing prototype drone developed by the X laboratory of Alphabet, formerly Google. (Photo: Project Wing)

The FAA did not confirm that the recipients of some 5,500 exemptions it issued for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) understood or followed the conditions of those approvals, according to an audit report released this month by the Department of Transportation inspector general (IG) . Fines for improper drone operations have been limited, the IG said, in part because the FAA has emphasized education over enforcement of the rules.

Released on December 1, the IG report focused on commercial exemptions the FAA granted under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization Act of 2012—before the agency released its Part 107 regulation for commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds in June. That rule became effective on August 29.

After the small UAS regulation became effective, Section 333 exemption holders had the option of continuing to fly under the conditions of their exemption or of reapplying under Part 107, which is “generally more permissive,” the IG said. The exemption process still applies to applicants seeking to fly drones weighing more than 55 pounds, the office noted.

As of December 2, the FAA had processed 22,048 applications for remote pilot certificates to fly drones for business purposes under Part 107, the agency said in response to an AIN inquiry. It also reported that 571,192 people had registered through an online site to operate one or more small drones for recreation.

When Congress granted the FAA authority to issue exemptions in the 2012 legislation, the agency “initially adopted a conservative, time-sensitive approach to reviewing applications that took as long as 215 days,” the IG said. But as the number of applications proliferated, the FAA expedited its approval process using contractor support. It issued the first Section 333 exemptions to six Hollywood-affiliated film and production companies in September 2014; the following April it announced a “summary grant” process of approving batches of exemptions in cases that were similar to previous approvals.

According to the IG: “At the time of our review, the FAA…did not verify that the over 5,500 approved operators thoroughly understood the conditions for operating UAS technology within the limitations of their exemption, such as by conducting knowledge tests,” which is a requirement of Part 107. “While FAA employees and contractors review the information within the exemption, we identified examples of operators who claimed they did not understand certain exemption provisions, such as prohibited night operations, or flying too close to people not participating in the operation.”

Once applicants received a commercial exemption, they also received a blanket certificate of authorization allowing them to fly anywhere within the U.S. at or below 400 feet, except near airports. The FAA did not track exemption holders by their operating locations, the IG said. “This is problematic because exemption applicants often use attorneys to prepare and file their exemption requests. In that case, the FAA has only the address of the attorney who filed the request, not the UAS operator’s address,” the office stated. “[A]s a result, the agency has limited knowledge of where UAS operate, and limited means to oversee those operators following a granted exemption.”

The number of incident reports of rogue drones has risen dramatically, mostly involving other-than-commercial aircraft. Seventy-one percent of reported sightings occurred at altitudes at or above 400 feet, according to an IG analysis of 1,411 incidents reported between November 2014 and January 2016. But as of this April, the FAA had initiated just 30 enforcement actions against violators, of which 12 remained open, the IG said. It had collected $22,805 in fines.

The IG attributed the limited number of enforcement actions to the FAA’s “current oversight philosophy,” which prioritizes operator education over enforcement. Compared to the 30 enforcement actions the FAA had initiated as of April, the agency had issued 625 education letters, the office said.

In the audit report, the IG recommends that the FAA adopt a more proactive, “risk-based” approach to overseeing drones that includes improved training of aviation safety inspectors, better use of data sources to facilitate data mining and safety analysis and periodic inspections of UAS operators to ensure their compliance with the rules.

The “FAA is currently restricted to a reactive approach to UAS oversight, rather than proactively identifying and mitigating risks with a rapidly advancing technology,” the office stated. “Unless the FAA can adopt a more proactive approach to civil UAS oversight, the agency cannot ensure that approved UAS are operating safely in our airspace.”