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Delivery Drones Might Never Get Government Approval

A government audit confirms that the FAA's drone office has no idea what it's doing.

Image: Amazon

So, when are commercial drones finally going to be implemented on a widespread basis in American skies in a legal, Federal Aviation Administration-approved way? Maybe never. 

A scathing new Inspector General report suggests that the office of the FAA tasked with integrating drones into the national air space is in disarray and suggests that the agency has so many hurdles to clear before drones can be safely integrated nationwide that it believes the day drones become commonplace may never come.

"While it is certain that the FAA will accommodate [drone] operations at limited locations, it is uncertain when and if full integration of [drones] into the National Air Space will occur," the report, released late last week by the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General, said.

That's the first I've ever heard of the possibility that the FAA might never meet its Congressionally-mandated obligation to allow drones to operate commercially in the National Air Space. Companies such as Amazon would presumably want to use drones nationwide, not in "limited locations." 

It's a sobering—if expected—picture. Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits writes that "significant technological, regulatory, and management barriers exist to safely integrate UAS into the NAS."

That much is obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to the agency's recent actions—its desperate attempts to regulate without actually writing regulations, its bowing to big business interests but heavy-handed treatment of drone hobbyists and small business operators, and the mixed messages that the FAA sends out, depending on what office happens to be nearby. This report, compiled by talking to randomly-selected FAA safety inspectors and administrators around the country, confirms those suspicions. 

Hampton's assessment is the bleakest picture anyone has painted about the commercial future of drones (that didn't involve some Big Brother dystopia), that I've seen at least.

Hampton's report confirms that the FAA has not issued any sort of binding regulations, which is good news for those who are flying commercially without the FAA's permission, and notes that the agency has missed or will miss nearly every deadline Congress set for it in the FAA Modernization Act of 2012, which required the agency to regulate drones.

The agency has also missed many of its own, internal deadlines, and still has no date set for many past-due benchmarks, like the regulations relating to small drones, which were originally supposed to be issued in 2011 and were pushed back to August of this year—a deadline the agency now says it will definitely miss.

"The agency is significantly behind schedule in meeting most [of its deadlines], including the goal of achieving safe integration by September 2015," Hampton wrote. 

What gives? Well, the office appears to be in complete disarray. Hampton notes that the agency is "not effectively managing its oversight of UAS operations" and suggests there are "organizational barriers—such as a lack of clear lines of reporting for UAS staff—[that] are further impeding FAA's progress in integrating and overseeing UAS operations." Hampton also notes that each regions' safety inspectors have different systems for processing drone certificate of authorization paperwork and has different standards.

Beyond that, the agency has spent nearly a decade trying to establish safety standards for drones and has still not agreed on minimum design certifications. It has not developed a standardized air traffic control procedure for drone flight. It has not set up a drone safety log to monitor unsafe incidents and crashes involving drones. It has not set up any sort of communications system with the Department of Defense to monitor military drones in the United States, and it has not even decided how many different classes of drones to establish and regulate.

The situation, as anyone who has followed my coverage here has probably noticed, is a complete mess. Hampton suggested a series of recommendations that essentially suggest the agency get its act together.

In a response memo, Clayton Foushee, the FAA's director of the office of audit and evaluation, notes that Congress' act requires the "safe—not full—integration of UAS into the National Air Space by September 2015." He also suggested that a small drone rule is one of the agency's "top priorities" and that an initial rule should come out later this year sometime.

A spokesperson for the FAA told me the agency "agrees with the [report's] recommendations and will carefully consider them as the agency continues to move forward with UAS integration."

"While the [inspector general] reports that the FAA faces many challenges to safely integrate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to fulfill the mandates in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the agency has made significant progress toward that goal," the FAA told me.

To be fair, there are technological barriers that come into play that have caused some of the delays. Many drones still have no "sense and avoid" capabilities, which allow it to detect objects and avoid them. That's definitely a necessary capability for large drones; it's less important when you're flying a five pound, styrofoam drone within line of sight. There are privacy issues that come into play.

But no one said this was going to be easy. Making little progress on the issue, attacking hobbyists and small time drone pilots with shakedowns, confusing policy statements, and ever-changing definitions of what an "aircraft" is doesn't inspire much confidence. Now, we're seeing that the agency might never get its act together, and the business is going to suffer because of it.