New GAO Report Cites Major Obstacles to FAA Approval of Drone Flights

Drone operators have long complained about the lack of clear guidelines from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for obtaining waivers and exemptions from the agency’s strict guidelines on their advanced flight operations.  For example, between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2021, the FAA received a total of 17,098 Part 107 waiver requests but approved just 3,492 – about 20 percent.  Drone operators say they’re never quite sure  of Part 107 applications it received and denied 10,712 (about 63 percent) applications.  Drone operators say the waiver rules are too complex and arcane, and often simply arbitrary, and that the FAA is not working constructively to facilitate their operations, unduly hampering the drone industry’s development.

FAA officials insist that the problem lies with the drone operators, who don’t always read the waiver application instructions carefully or fail to complete the forms properly.  But in a new report released last month, the US General Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found that the problem lies with the FAA – not drone operators.  After collecting a trove of FAA planning documents and interviewing FAA officials and industry stakeholders, the GAO found that the agency still lacked a “comprehensive”strategy for integrating drones into the nation’s airspace management system – and as a result, was prone to responding to waiver requests on a case-by-base basis, breeding unnecessary confusion and distrust among drone operations.

Congress first requested that the FAA develop a comprehensive drone airspace strategy back in 2012 – and the agency pledged to have one in place by 2015.   However, eight years later, just four of the seven elements needed for a comprehensive strategy are in place, the GAO found.  Not only has the FAA failed to outline basic goals and objectives for its strategy, it’s also failed to establish specific milestones and performance measures by which progress might be measured.  Waivers and exemptions – especially those for Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations not requiring remote piloting – are approved on an ad hoc basis, often in response to industry pressure, or from specific companies exerting influence on the process, the GAO found.

In reply to the GAO’s report, FAA officials acknowledged some real problems in their current waiver approval system, which they attributed primarily to miscommunication, rather than underlying flaws in their regulatory framework. “FAA officials said that they recognize that their process for reviewing operational requests is complex and that they plan to take steps to improve FAA’s guidance. By more clearly communicating how to satisfy FAA’s requirements and FAA’s process for reviewing operational requests, applicants could be better positioned to provide FAA with the quality information needed to assess these requests,” the GAO noted.

Currently, a number of major companies, including Amazon and Walmart, are receiving waivers to conduct remote package delivery operations near major population centers. Other companies, including the Israeli firm Percepto, have received an exemption for autonomous inspections of their facilities in remote non-residential areas.   However, many companies still find themselves subjected to additional onerous restrictions, including rigorous pre-flight safety checks, especially for flights over roads and highways, which hinder their business operations, delaying delivery times and boosting their operational costs.

In addition to clarifying its own guidelines, the FAA still needs to work out agreements with state and local authorities that have imposed their own restrictions on drone access to airspace in their own jurisdictions.  In theory, under US law, all airspace is considered federal property over which the FAAexerts exclusive authority.  However, the FAA has been reluctant to impose its authority or to risk a court battle by moving to supersede these restrictions.

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