The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation told senators that
the department faces key safety challenges to ensure its oversight keeps pace with the rapidly growing use of aerial drones, emergence of driverless cars, how it collects and uses vehicle recall data, and effectively addressing pipeline safety violations.
IG Calvin Scovel made those points at a
Feb. 8 hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, where he joined inspectors general reporting on the Commerce and Homeland Security Departments as well as the National Science Foundation.
Scovel said growing demand for commercial use of drones, or unmanned aerial systems, poses "one of the most significant safety challenges" in decades for the Federal Aviation Administration. He said business uses range "from pipeline monitoring and precision agriculture to package delivery and filmmaking."
State DOTs have also been testing the use of drones to conduct inspections of high bridges or other hard-to-reach structures.
Noting that the FAA recently forecast that perhaps 1.9 million units were sold in 2016, a number that could rise to 4.3 million units annually by 2020, Scovel said it raises safety concerns since the agency "has not yet established a comprehensive oversight framework to ensure this evolving industry can operate safely in the same airspace with other private, commercial and military aircraft."
Although the FAA introduced a rule last June regulating small drone usage, it did not address some potential high-profile uses such as delivery of packages out of sight of the on-ground pilot, so the agency must accommodate some UAS operations through waivers and exemptions.
In the fast-developing field of automated vehicles, including driverless cars and commercial trucks, Scovel said officials "will have to consider whether new authority is needed to ensure that these new vehicles are as safe" as vehicles.
Regarding safety recalls, he said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working to address concerns the IG office raised in audit recommendations over the years, but "has not completed our five recommendations [from 2015] to enhance collection and analysis of early warning reporting data and the process for reviewing complaints."
On pipeline risks, Scovel said the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has found it difficult to prosecute violations of a criminal standard that requires that a violation be committed "knowingly and willfully."
While one case just completed – stemming from a 2010 natural gas pipeline rupture in California that killed eight – resulted in a maximum sentence, Scovel said the DOT and Congress might strengthen that statute section by including "reckless" violations.