The US Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector general (IG) has initiated an audit of the FAA and industry program to provide timely, automated authorization of drone flights near airports.

In a Nov. 8 memorandum, the IG said considering “given significant safety implications” of introducing unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) into the airspace system, it has “self-initiated” an audit of the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).

The number of drone sightings reported to the FAA, most by the pilots of manned aircraft, increased from 238 in 2014 to 2,185 in 2017, the IG noted. As of Oct. 26, there were 2,085 drone sightings in 2018.

Through the LAANC process, commercial operators can request authorization to fly drones in controlled airspace near airports using applications offered by FAA-designated UAS Service Suppliers. The apps match their flight plans with airspace grids on FAA UAS Facility Maps that depict pre-approved areas and altitudes where a drone can safely fly—then convey authorization or denial to the operator. Drone hobbyists can use the system to notify air traffic control (ATC) when flying within five miles of an airport.

FAA started beta testing LAANC April 30, 2018 and has been rolling out the system by regions across the country. It is active at nearly 290 ATC facilities, covering about 500 airports.

FAA executives describe the system as a success story that has reduced wait times for airspace authorizations that previously took up to 90 days. The LAANC is considered a precursor of a more complex UAS Traffic Management—or UTM—system that would be capable of managing multiple, simultaneous drone flights at low altitude.

FAA now lists 14 UAS service providers: Aeronyde, Airbus, AirMap, AiRXOS, Altitude Angel, Converge, DJI, Harris Corp., Kittyhawk, Project Wing, Skyward, Thales, UASidekick and Unifly.

Rules governing commercial use of drones are contained in FAA’s Part 107 regulation, which became effective August 2016. The regulation “does not permit commercial UAS operations in airspace managed by FAA’s air traffic control without agency authorization and approval,” the IG said. “Further, our prior and ongoing work has shown that the FAA is challenged to keep pace with the volume of requests for UAS to operate in controlled airspace near airports.”

The IG said it plans to assess the impact of the system on FAA’s review and approval process for UAV airspace requests, and the agency’s procedures for coordinating approvals with airports, ATC facilities, LAANC service providers and drone operators.

Bill Carey, bill.carey@aviationweek.com