In a memorandum sent to the Director of Audit and Evaluation, the audit was announced: “Given the significant safety implications of integrating UAS into the National Airspace System and the increasing number of both requested and approved UAS waivers, we are initiating an audit of FAA’s current approval and oversight processes for UAS waivers,” said the OIG. “Our audit objectives will be to assess FAA’s processes for: (1) granting waivers under the rule for small UAS operations, and (2) conducting risk- based oversight of UAS operators with waivers.”
“The System is Fragile”
Drone attorney and flight instructor Jonathan Rupprecht says the timing of the audit is not surprising, given that the FAA Reauthorization package – extended last year – is scheduled to be addressed in Congress this fall. Rupprecht, who writes about drone law issues and is expert in navigating the FAA’s complex certification and authorization processes for clients, says that the waiver system may be vulnerable. “I don’t think that people realize the system is getting more and more backlogged,” he says. “Looking behind the scenes, you have to understand how much human effort is required to process these… The system is fragile.”
FAA Not “Keeping Pace”
This is not the first audit that the OIG has carried out regarding drone systems at the FAA. In a December 2016 report titled “FAA Lacks a Risk-Based Oversight Process for Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” the OIG reported that the FAA “faced challenges in keeping pace with the increase in UAS exemption requests received before implementing the small UAS rule, resulting in the need for streamlined processes,” says the audit memorandum. “Similarly, it is important that FAA’s waiver approval process does not result in prolonged delays, especially for operations already considered to be a low safety risk by the Agency.”
While the audit won’t guarantee any change in process at the FAA, it could influence lawmakers as they negotiate the next FAA Reauthorization package in September.