“Lack of Reliable Data”: GAO Says FAA Needs to Improve Management of Safety Risks for Drones

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report suggesting that the FAA needs to improve its management of safety risks for drones.

The 92-page document, published in response to growing concern in Congress and other government agencies over the unsafe use of drones, says that the FAA lacks good data on drone safety and doesn’t go far enough in “following key principles of risk management.”

Lack of Reliable Data

The report says that the current data available on identified drone risks – i.e., “sightings” that indicate drones are flying to close to manned aircraft or “incidents” – are unreliable.   FAA says, GAO reports, that “most of the reports cannot be verified,” and that reports are rarely validated or investigated.  Additionally, the FAA acknowledges that many of the reports may not actually indicate that a drone was flying unlawfully.

The report also points out that other entities, like the AMA and the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone, reach different conclusions about the number of significant incidents when analyzing the same data.

“FAA officials told us that they are aware that the agency’s data on potential unsafe use of small UAS have limitations,” says the report; and the agency is “making efforts” to improve the quality of information.

Risk Management Principles

That lack of reliable data means that the FAA only “partially follows” risk management principles.  “… FAA’s policy on safety risk management requires FAA to follow a process for managing risk that includes identifying hazards; analyzing and assessing associated safety risks; and developing and monitoring safety risk controls to reduce the risks to an acceptable level,” says the report.

When it comes to breaking down the tasks involved in accurately “analyzing and assessing associated safety risks” and “monitoring safety risk controls” the FAA’s lack of reliable incident data means that they don’t get full marks.  That’s significant for the drone industry, because it means that the FAA may be writing new regulations based on incomplete information.


“FAA’s actions to expand the safe use of small UAS in the national airspace system have helped enable an increase in the number of commercial and recreational uses,” the report concludes. “…However, FAA’s ability to perform effective safety oversight is limited by FAA’s lack of reliable data on unsafe use of small UAS and deficiencies in FAA’s risk management approach.”

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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