Responding to an auditor’s report critical of its progress toward integrating unmanned aircraft into national airspace, the FAA says it expects to complete a plan by the end of August for a phased implementation approach over five years.

The Transportation Department’s Inspector General’s (IG) conclusion that FAA will miss Congress’s September 2015 deadline for integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system (NAS) will come as a surprise to no one watching its progress.

"FAA is making some progress in meeting UAS-related provisions of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, but the agency is significantly behind schedule in meeting most of them, including the goal of achieving safe integration by September 2015," the IG says.

"FAA’s delays are due to unresolved technological, regulatory, and privacy issues, which will prevent FAA from meeting Congress’ September 30, 2015, deadline for achieving safe UAS integration. As a result…it is uncertain when and if full integration of UAS into the NAS will occur," the IG says.

"FAA officials told us that by 2015 they expect to issue their rule for small UAS, approve a ground-based detect and avoid system, and have operational test ranges. However, these actions do not represent full, safe integration," the report says.

"The Act requires safe – not full – integration of UAS into the NAS by September 2015," FAA says in its response, adding "AFS-80 [the UAS Integration Office] continues to work on a number of issues which require resolution in order for safe integration to occur."

Issues cited include establishing performance and certification standards for detect-and-avoid systems, improving the collection of safety data, developing safety risk management documents, developing training for air traffic controllers, and streamlining the process for authorizing UAS use.

The IG cites several significant barriers to safely integrating UAS into the NAS. First, following years of work with industry, the FAA has not reached consensus on standards for detect-and-avoid systems and data links, the report notes.

"Second, FAA has not established a regulatory framework for UAS integration, such as aircraft certification requirements, standard air traffic procedures… or an adequate controller training program," the report says.

"Third, FAA is not effectively collecting and analyzing UAS safety data to identify risks." Finally, FAA is not effectively managing its oversight of UAS operations. The agency’s UAS Integration Office has not "established clear guidance for regional inspectors on authorizing and overseeing UAS operations," the IG says.

The IG recommends the FAA develop "a more detailed implementation plan with milestones and prioritized actions needed to advance UAS integration in the near, mid, and long term."

In its response, the FAA says it is working with Mitre to develop a UAS Integration Strategy to assist with the development of a plan "that identifies the goals, dependencies, issues, and specific milestones of a phased implementation approach for UAS integration into the NAS over a five year implementation period." Anticipated completion date for the plan is August 31.

The FAA argues it has complied with another IG recommendation that it "establish metrics to define progress in meeting implementation milestones." The agency says, that, beginning this year, annual updates to its UAS Roadmap will include adjustments to goals, metrics and target dates.

"It is not possible to assess whether FAA’s planned actions meet the intent of our recommendation until FAA publishes the next update of the UAS Roadmap," the IG says, noting the FAA "did not provide a specific target date for when this action will be completed."