The “fear of making a mistake” drives a risk culture at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that is slowing the deployment of drone aircraft in U.S. airspace.

The agency's focus is often "solely on what might go wrong," and the dialogue needs to shift toward "balancing risks with potential advantages of drone operations, developing a holistic picture on overall risk and benefit." The findings are part of a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Introducing drone operations into U.S. airspace can provide benefits to society, such as inspecting cell phone towers, delivering medical devices to patients in cardiac distress, and assisting firefighters, the report says. However, the FAA's approach to safety risk assessments can be a "significant barrier" to developing and introducing drone technology.

The report says that drone operations in the United States that have the potential of providing safety benefits have been prevented from entering the airspace because of FAA’s application of safety risk assessment techniques, developed over many years for manned aviation, which require evidence of a near-zero tolerance for risk.

“FAA needs to accelerate its move away from the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy for UAS operations,” says George Ligler, a North Carolina-based consultant and chair of the committee. “The FAA’s current methods for safety and risk management certainly ensure safety within the manned aircraft sector, but UASs present new and unique challenges and opportunities, which make it important for the agency to take a broader view on risk analysis.”

Ligler has worked at the national and international levels to develop and implement standards for aircraft communications, navigation and surveillance equipment.

(Download a copy of the report.)

The report urges FAA to understand the threshold of risk that the public is likely to accept for small drones, in the same context as other levels of publicly accepted risks for activities such as driving a car. Such an approach can help establish appropriate safety standards for many UASs beyond those currently defined in FAA’s regulation that governs relatively small-sized drones, the most common types flying today.

The report says that to integrate drone activities into the nation’s airspace in a timely yet safe manner, FAA should evolve its current risk assessment methodologies. The current FAA approaches to UAS risk management are based fundamentally on qualitative and subjective risk analysis.

The committee calls on FAA to establish and publish specific guidelines within the next 12 months for implementing a predictable, repeatable, quantitative risk-based process for certifying UAS systems and aircraft and granting operations approval. The administration should expand its perspective on quantitative risk assessment to look more holistically at the total safety risk. For example, FAA should consider the safety benefit that accrues when a drone allows for cell tower inspections without the need for a human to climb the tower.

The report also recommends that the FAA administrator commit to reviewing risk assessments within six months so the proponents receive timely feedback. The administration should also undertake a top-to-bottom change in management processes with the aim of moving to a risk-based decision-making organization with clearly defined lines of authority, responsibility and accountability.

The study was sponsored by FAA. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide analysis and advice to the nation. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences.