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The FAA can't fund drones

Overworked and underfunded, the FAA admits it can’t keep up

By Leah Froats
Published: March 10, 2017

Originally published at

On March 7, the FAA released a document which tasked its Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), a long-term advisory board comprised of drone and tech industry leaders, with providing recommendations on how to fund the integration of drones into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Sounds harmless ― but the FAA went on to say if additional funding isn’t found, then the progress of the drone industry will be greatly impacted. This will undoubtedly affect those who fly drones in a variety of waysHow the FAA gets money

Currently, the FAA primarily receives funding from the Aviation Trust Fund, which is made up of a collection of excise taxes imposed on aviation users. Such taxes are tacked onto airline tickets, international arrivals and departures, and the use of aviation fuels. In 2016, these taxes made up a whopping 87.8% of the FAA’s funding. But remember: The FAA does a lot more than drones, so that money gets doled out to many different groups, programs, and employees within the Administration.

The document doesn’t outline how much of this budget is allocated to the Administration’s drone integration efforts, but it does paint a dire picture of the FAA’s UAS branch.

According to the document, the FAA has kept its drone efforts running primarily by reallocating its staff and shifting internal funds. But absorbing the costs of activities like implementing Part 107, creating the B4UFly smartphone app, and developing a UAS integration framework is currently impacting the FAA’s ability to meet its many other responsibilities outside of the UAS arena.

“The requirement to meet UAS needs is outpacing the Agency’s resources. Without additional funds, the FAA will not be able to keep pace with the dramatic growth in public, industry, and business demands for UAS operations,” the FAA said in the document.

Can't keep up

What that means for current commercial and hobby drone users is essentially a very slow trickle of progress on waivers, new regulation, and general industry progress. The document outlines that this problem is not exactly a new one. When Part 107 went into effect in August 2016, the drone industry celebrated the FAA’s progress. But behind the scenes, the FAA was struggling to keep up.

Just a month after its implementation, the demand for Part 107 certifications and waivers “had already overwhelmed our traditional systems and manual processes,” said the agency in the document.

And, unsurprisingly, that problem is not going away. The FAA has touted the number of operators who have passed the Part 107 Knowledge Test, but once those pilots are certified, they’re lucky if they hear back about their waiver applications. This is strongly evidenced by the most recent waiver issuance on the FAA’s public database: January 23.

“The backlog of waivers is worse [than the backlog of Section 333 exemptions] due to an even higher public and industry demand,” the document explains. It goes on to say that the Administration doesn’t even have the funds to build an automated system to handle the many pending waiver requests.

If it can’t be automated, that means that more staff are required — which is an issue of its own, considering the fact that President Trump has issued an executive order to indefinitely freeze all federal hiring.

When asked for comment as to whether this should be a cause for concern within the drone industry, the FAA responded that it would "let the tasking document speak for itself."

The FAA’s public admittance of its current struggle reveals what many have suspected for some time — the Administration simply can’t keep up with the drone industry. But the drone industry may have to start doing (and paying) a little more to help fix that problem.

From your wallet to theirs

The FAA outlined a handful of ways in which this lack of resources could be fixed. User fees, point-of-sale purchase taxes, and taxes on particular commercial UAS services are all options to help fill the FAA’s drone coffers. But for a community that balked at a $5 drone registration fee, new costs are likely not going to be greeted warmly.

Adequately funding the FAA’s complex drone operations while keeping the industry alive and well is going to be difficult to balance. Tacking on a 5% FAA tax onto your new DJI Phantom 4 isn’t going to break the bank for an individual operator — but if every drone user pays into that 5% tax, will that be enough to solve the FAA’s budgetary woes? If the tax is raised to 10%, would the industry suffer because of it?

The problem in the drone industry particularly is that there just isn’t a lot of money in commercial drone operation right now — although industry hype might tell you otherwise. Even small fees put in place by the FAA may be enough to sink new entrepreneurs and aspiring commercial drone operators, which will not bode well for the growth of the industry.

These are the challenges that the DAC will have to tackle in the coming months — not to mention the resulting bureaucratic process of implementing the necessary budgetary changes. The FAA Task Group will consider the DAC’s recommendations and report its findings no later than March 2018.