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FAA announces its small UAS registration rules

Hobby aircraft enthusiasts will now have to register their vehicles

December 14, 2015

On Monday, the FAA announced what it calls a “streamlined and simple, web-based aircraft registration process” for small unmanned aircraft, including model aircraft, in an interim final rule (IFR).  Starting Dec. 21, 2015, all small unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) on takeoff and operated outdoors must be registered before flying. If you owned and operated a UAS prior to Dec. 21, you have until Feb. 19, 2016 to register. Registration costs $5 and must be renewed every three years. However, to encourage registration, the FAA is waiving the fee for the first 30 days.

The website will issue a number to the registrant. All of the UAS an operator owns must be permanently marked with the registration number. The number must be legible and readily accessible; inside the battery compartment is acceptable, so long as you don’t need special tools to open it. The website will also generate a registration certificate and email it to the owner. Anyone who flies the UAS must carry either a paper or electronic copy of the certificate and be able to present it.

The penalties for not registering your drone can be substantial, with civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties could range up to $250,000 along and might include jail time. 

The FAA took its mandate from the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx seriously to try to get a handle on the more than 400,000 hobby-grade UAS expected to flood the market (and subsequently the NAS) this holiday season. The FAA hopes that registration will engender a sense of responsibility among small UAS operators and set the expectation that the public is keeping an eye out for unsafe flyers.

Eric Cheng, former director of imaging at DJI, doubts this version of drone registration will dramatically increase safety. "Drones [will] still not be able to be identified at a distance, and drones (and their owners) can only be identified if they are recovered more or less intact after an accident," he says.

The drone registry marks a significant break between the model aircraft community and government regulators. Although the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the roughly 180,000-strong advocacy group for R/C hobbyists, was a member of the DOT’s drone task force, it criticized the final ruling on Monday arguing that the FAA overstepped it’s bounds. Specifically, the AMA contends that the FAA ruling disobeys the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012) which exempts modelers from federal regulation aimed at non-recreational drone users.

UAVUS CEO and President Bob Gonsalves is concerned that the FAA's rush to implement small UAS registration bypassed crucial checks like the Administrative Procedures Act and Offices of Management and Budget. He suggests it might "open the door" for more regulation that is similarly rushed.

Ever since the DOT and the FAA announced in October that it planned on implementing the rule in time for the holidays, they have been under fire for rushing the process. In a statement yesterday, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a D.C.-based think tank that aims to minimize federal regulations, argued that the FAA had ignored the requirement that proposed regulation be open to public comment for 30 to 60 days.

"With that said, the requirement to register small UAV used for recreation is a positive step towards an overall UAS integration plan," Gonsalves says. "However, the focus on enforcement versus education is putting the cart before the horse."

It remains to be seen whether the quickly conceived plan can be implemented without any substantial hiccups. "If the registration scheme is implemented perfectly, it won't cause that much friction for most hobbyists," Cheng says. He's unsure if it can be launched without problems because of the haste. However, if the plan is successful, Cheng thinks it could be a positive force. "It presents an opportunity to educate a customer after product purchase, and also establishes a clear accountability trail in accidents in which the drone is recovered," he says.

Because enforcement of drone use is very difficult, the registry will depend upon voluntary compliance to work. If the program is seen as a rushed or stop-gap measure, it risks not being taken seriously, which could hamper its effectiveness. The response from the CEI and the AMA could slow down the implementation of the registration system, and, as Cheng points out, bad actors won't register.

The safe integration of drones into the NAS will require the participation of stakeholders on a number of different levels, not least from recreational users. So far, the FAA has worked hard to include these stakeholders in the formation of drone policy. If the registration program creates fissures in this collaborative rulemaking process, that could be a serious problem for the effective and safe integration of drones into the airspace system.

You can read UAS registration FAQ here. For the full IFR, click here.

Arthur Holland Michel and  Dan Gettinger are co-founders of the Center for the Study of the Drone.

Edited Dec. 15, 2016