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New FAA Regulations Require Registration for Recreational Drones

December 15, 2015
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on Dec. 14 a new requirement in federal law requiring registration of all model aircraft, including recreational drones.
 
It is reportedly a user-friendly web-based registration process. Under the new federal rule, anyone who operated a drone, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) before Dec. 21, 2015, is required to register by Feb. 19, 2016. Owners of any drone or UAS purchased after Dec. 21 must register before their first flight outdoors.

Owners and operators can register at www.faa.gov/uas/registration. A registration fee of $5.00 must be paid, but it will be waived for the first 30 days — until Jan. 20, 2016. In addition, drones will have to display a unique identifier, a registration number issued by the FAA. Registrants will need to provide their name, home address and e-mail address. Upon completion of the registration process, the web application will generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will include a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft.  
 
These new regulations, while helpful, may not go far enough to adequately address the hazards and potential for misuse that drones represent. For example, registration is largely voluntary on the part of drone operators, and, for drones purchased after Dec. 21, registration is not required at the time of purchase or point of sale.
 
While registration is required prior to the operation of a drone in the national airspace, it is difficult to see how such a requirement will be enforced absent a point of sale registration requirement. In addition, there is no requirement that drone operators provide the FAA with the serial number assigned their drone by its manufacturer. This raises doubts about the effectiveness of the FAA’s response, given the scope of the abuse of this technology that has occurred over the past two years.
 
FAA Enforcement
 
The Unmanned Aircraft System Registration Task Force, which made a series of recommendations leading to the new FAA regulations, considered the difficulties posed by enforcement, and the limitations of both the FAA and local law enforcement agencies. The FAA’s primary enforcement mechanism will be outreach and education, which will likely be web-based (see “What’s Required” below). However, the FAA may also employ administrative action or legal enforcement action to gain compliance with the new requirements.
 
Existing federal law already provides civil penalties of up to $27,500 for failure to register, and corresponding criminal penalties including fines of up to $250,000 under 18 U.S.C. 3571 and/or imprisonment up to three years under 49 U.S.C. 46306. However, under the new regulations there is no systematic mechanism to alert authorities as to who has and has not registered.
 
Why Yet Tighter Regulations May Be Urgently Needed
 
The Consumer Technology Association, a trade group, estimates that 400,000 drones will be sold this holiday season in the United States. Given the many safety hazards they pose and the current lack of comprehensive regulations and enforcement provisions to make them meaningful, many states, including California, may take the initiative and pursue enforcement legislation, notwithstanding potential conflicts with federal law.
 
During 2015 alone, several incidents underscore the urgent need for tighter regulations: the 19 occasions during wildfire season in which drones illegally operating in restricted airspace forced the grounding of firefighting aircraft nationwide; the increasing incidents of drones illegally operating near airports, inside the prohibited 5-mile radius, and often dangerously close to commercial airliners; and finally the near-collision that occurred between a California Highway Patrol (CHP) helicopter and a drone over a highway in Martinez on the evening Dec. 5, avoided only due to evasive action on the part of the CHP pilot.
 
What’s Required of Drone Operators
 
One problem is that many drone operators are ignorant of the applicable rules. In an effort to help the public understand what is required of not only recreational drone operators, but also commercial and public agency users of unmanned aircraft systems, the FAA has also launched a website containing information on the federal requirements, including the many safety guidelines.


 
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