Counter-drone technology is being developed and deployed by governmental agencies at an increasing rate. In light of this, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation requested that the Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) examine how the FAA has been handling these developments and the potential impact counter-drone technology might have on the national airspace system. The IG released its report into the matter last week, and found that the FAA’s efforts are lacking in several key areas.
While the FAA has been coordinating with the agencies deploying counter-drone technology, the IG found that FAA has not conducted a strategic assessment of the need for counter-drone technology to ensure that it has the resources and processes in place to keep pace with increasing demand. According to the Report, the FAA experienced a 340 percent increase in UAS detection and C-UAS coordination requests from other federal agencies between 2019 and 2020 alone.
More importantly, the IG found that FAA has not yet completed the necessary testing of UAS detection and C-UAS technologies, and as a result, cannot fully assess their impact on aviation safety and security, and may not understand those impacts for several years.
The IG does not, however, place all of the blame on the FAA for the slow pace of counter-drone testing. The IG noted that the FAA has been working on this program for a number of years, but that the pace of testing was seriously impacted by COVID-19. In addition, the IG determined that current testing efforts have been slowed due to supply chain issues that are keeping vendors from obtaining system components. The IG believes that due to these issues, the FAA will not even have results from its Phase One testing until 2024 at the earliest.
The FAA was provided an opportunity to respond to the IG report, and acknowledged that more work needs to be done to balance “safely integrating UAS into the National Airspace System while addressing security and operational concerns.” The FAA also indicated that the Office of Airports “has identified the need for additional staff and created a new division to specifically manage new and emerging entrant issues, including UAS and UAS detection activities on airports.” Overall, the FAA “concurs with the recommendations to improve its UAS detection and C-UAS program strategic planning and mandated testing, as written.” Accordingly, the FAA pledged to perform an assessment of needed resources by the end of this year, and improve the efficiency of its coordination process with other agencies by February 28, 2023.
While this Report, and the FAA’s positive response, are a welcome development, more clearly needs to be done. In particular, the fact that FAA will not be able to complete phase 1 of its 5 phase Airport UAS Detection and Mitigation Research Program before 2024 is troubling. Now that COVID-19’s effects are diminishing, the FAA will be able to make up some of its lost ground.