Drone risk tolerance assessment in national airspace becomes focal point in report

WASHINGTON. A newly released congressionally mandated report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine states that introducing drone operations into U.S. airspace can provide substantial benefits to society, such as preventing derailments, inspecting cell phone towers, delivering medical devices to patients in cardiac distress, and assisting firefighters.

The report notes, however, that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) takes what the report committee considers an overly conservative approach to safety-risk assessments, which the committee characterizes as overestimation of the severity and likelihood of risks from many types of drone operations. The FAA's approach, say the report writers, can be a significant barrier to introduction and development of this emerging and rapidly changing technology.

“FAA needs to accelerate its move away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy for UAS [unmanned aerial system] operations,” said George Ligler, proprietor of consultancy GTL Associates 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.”

The report -- sponsored by the FAA -- urges the agency to consider the risk threshold that the public is likely to accept for small drones in the same context as the public regards other levels of publicly accepted risks for activities such as traveling by car, swimming in the ocean, or walking across the street. Such an approach, says the report, can help establish appropriate safety standards for many UASs beyond those currently defined in the FAA regulation that governs relatively small-sized drones, the most common types flying today.

“Overly stringent certification and operational approval requirements for drone operations that are relatively low risk have the potential for placing unnecessary burden on the business case and implementation timeline for those operations, stifling innovation,” Ligler added.

The committee calls on the FAA to establish and publish specific guidelines within the next year toward implementing a predictable, repeatable, and quantitative risk-based process for certifying UAS systems and aircraft and subsequent operational approval. The report also admonishes the FAA to expand its perspective on quantitative risk assessment to consider the total safety risk more holistically. The report also recommends that the FAA administrator publicly commit to reviewing risk assessments within six months and undertake a top-to-bottom change in management processes with the aim of a decisive move to a risk-based decision-making organization with clearly defined lines of authority, responsibility, and accountability.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine -- which exist under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln -- are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  Those who wish additional information on the study may visit the National Academies Press website.