The growing demand for civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operations presents new safety oversight challenges for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Using an authority granted by Congress, FAA has approved over 5,500 commercial UAS to operate by exempting them from regulatory requirements, and recently issued a final rule governing operations of small UAS. Given the significant and complex challenges of safely integrating UAS into the National Airspace System and the increasing number of UAS operations, we conducted an audit of FAA’s processes for approving civil UAS operations and overseeing the safe operation of UAS.

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We found that FAA streamlined its process in 2015 for exempting civil UAS from regulatory requirements in response to increasing requests for exemptions and concerns over lengthy approval times. However, FAA’s process does not verify that operators actually meet or understand the conditions and limitations of their exemptions either before or after the application is approved. Furthermore, while FAA has taken some steps to advance UAS technology, the Agency has not established a risk-based safety oversight process for civil UAS operations—a key tool for focusing resources on a range of emerging risks. Despite an increase in reported UAS events, FAA lacks a robust data reporting and tracking system for UAS activity. As a result, FAA is currently taking a reactive approach to UAS oversight.

FAA concurred with all six of our recommendations to enhance the effectiveness of FAA’s oversight of civil UAS. Based on FAA’s response, we consider two recommendations resolved but open, and we are requesting additional information for four recommendations.

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