Nearly all owners of remote-controlled aircraft across the country will have to register hundreds of thousands of drones with the Federal Aviation Administration starting Dec. 21.
The owner – whether it’s a new purchase or a drone that’s been flying for years – will have to register a name, a physical address and an email address with the FAA, the agency announced Monday. The decision follows a recommendation Nov. 21 by a task force of manufacturers, retailers, pilots and hobbyists. Existing owners will have to register by Feb. 19, 2016, and new buyers will have to register before their first flight.
The registry for drones weighing at least 9 ounces marks the latest balancing act for federal regulators who are trying to keep the skies safe as drones increasingly share airspace with passenger planes. Industry groups have estimated that hundreds of thousands have already been sold, with many more on the way as holiday gifts.
The registration will cost $5 for an unlimited number of aircraft and will be valid for three years. The credit-card transaction will help confirm the owner’s identity, and the fee will be refunded during the first month, to encourage people to register early.
Each aircraft must be marked with a unique number, although not necessarily the serial number. The goal is to help authorities track down an owner if a drone collides with another aircraft, flies too high or encroaches on an airport.
“My message to unmanned aircraft operators is pretty simple: It is in your best interest to register early,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “We are excited to bring these new users into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American aviation.”
The registration site is still being tested but will be available at: www.faa.gov/uas/registration
“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”
The FAA receives about 100 reports per month from aircraft pilots who said they spotted drones flying near them. But hobbyists who scrutinized the records contend that many of the reports involve objects that aren’t drones or that involve drones following the rules.
Penalties for failing to register could reach $27,500 in civil fines and $250,000 and three years in prison for criminal penalties. But Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator of FAA, said initial efforts will be to get everyone signed up rather than to punish owners, unless it is an egregious incident.
“Our real challenge is to get them to understand the rules and get them to comply,” Whitaker said. “The goal is not to be punitive, but to get people into compliance with the regulations.”
Commercial drones, for purposes such as aerial photography or utility inspections, are already registered when operators get special permission to fly from the FAA.
Federal officials were eager to get the registry for hobbyists started in time for holiday gift-giving. The registry also aims to reinforce the rules for flying, which the FAA, manufacturers and hobbyist groups have promoted through an educational program at knowbeforeyoufly.com.
Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said registration would improve safety by facilitating the enforcement of flying regulations. But requiring registration at the point where drones are sold would be more effective, he said.
“We support the registration-requirement development process and welcome the accountability that the FAA’s rule will establish for those who purchase a drone,” he said.
Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents 185,000 hobbyists nationwide and participated in the task force, said education programs are the way to ensure safety rather than a registry that will create “an unnecessary burden” on the group’s members.
“AMA is disappointed with the new rule for (drone) registration,” Mathewson said in a statement.
FAA guidelines say hobbyists should fly drones no higher than 400 feet, within sight of the operator during daylight and at least 5 miles from the nearest airport, unless they have special permission from the air-traffic control tower.
Brian Wynne, CEO of the association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group with 7,500 members from government, industry and academia, praised the registry for bringing more accountability to flying drones. He urged the FAA to complete its comprehensive rules, which are expected to be completed in mid-2016, for drones weighing up to 55 pounds to share the skies with passenger planes.
“Though it may not be perfect, this process and final rule shows that industry and government can come together quickly to develop policy,” Wynne said in a statement.
The registry could be challenged in court.
Marc Scribner, a transportation expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an advocacy group for limited government, said the FAA should have allowed public notice and comment about the final rule for the registry, which will be published Tuesday in the Federal Register. Ignoring those requirements means government officials “are practically demanding litigation,” Scribner said.
“The FAA’s mandatory consumer drone registration scheme is both unreasonable and probably illegal,” said Eli Dourado, director of the technology policy program at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, who said he expects the registry to be overturned if challenged in court. “There is little evidence that small consumer drones — essentially toys — pose a risk to the national airspace.”
A 2012 law that called for the FAA to develop rules for commercial drones explicitly prohibited the FAA from regulating “model aircraft” for “hobby or recreational use” that is operating within community-set guidelines.
But Whitaker said the registry isn’t regulation and is part of the FAA’s long-standing authority to register aircraft from a Cessna 172 to a Boeing 787.
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