The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced new registration guidelines Monday ahead of what is expected to be an influx of hundreds of thousands of drones to American skies this holiday season.
With much of the conversation around unmanned aerial systems (UAS) centering on cases of misuse and a general lack of accountability on the part of the pilots, the FAA will now require hobbyists to register their aircraft through a federal system.
In a press release issued Monday, the administration said the new rule will take effect Dec. 21 and will apply to all drones weighing between a half-pound and 55 pounds — generally considered to be hobby drones.
“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in the release. “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.”
With the exponential growth of the hobby drone industry in recent years, the government has been faced with the challenge of enforcing rules around where and when the commercially available systems can be operated. The question of how to identify the owners of a UAS operating outside of the law has been a question of much debate in recent months.
Over the summer, officials in California and Utah struggled with trying to identify drone operators flying in the airspace of firefighting aircraft. The numerous intrusions caused the aircrafts to be grounded and wasted valuable firefighting time. In January 2015, the U.S. Secret Service investigated a drone-related breach of White House airspace in which a federal employee crashed a hobby drone.
In mid-October, the FAA convened a special rule-making task force to address the issue of regulation and registration of hobby drones.
Some have argued that simply requiring owners to register a drone will not stop operators from breaking the rules, like flying in restricted airspace. Under the terms of the registration rule, however, UAS owners would be held to the same penalties as the pilots of smaller manned aircraft, according to the wording of the FAA regulations.
“To mitigate risks in the [national airspace] and ensure compliance, FAA has used and will continue to use outreach and education to encourage compliance with regulatory requirements that pertain to the registration of unmanned aircraft. The FAA may also use administrative action or legal enforcement action to gain compliance. Failure to register an aircraft can result in civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties for failure to register can include fines of up to $250,000 under 18 U.S.C. 3571 and/or imprisonment up to 3 years. 49 U.S.C. 46306,” the new rule reads.
The new federal action closely coincides with a recently published Bard College study that looked at close calls between aircraft and hobby UASs in national airspace. According to the report, researchers collected records of more than 921 incidents involving drones and manned aircraft between December 2013 and Sept. 12, 2015.
“We counted 158 incidents in which a drone came within 200 feet or less of a manned aircraft (two-thirds of all Close Encounters in which a concrete drone-to-aircraft proximity is given), 51 incidents in which the proximity was 50 feet or less, and 28 incidents in which a pilot maneuvered to avoid a collision with a drone,” the report reads.
Under the new rule, operators who had previously flown a drone prior to Dec. 21 will be tasked with registration no later than Feb. 19, 2016. Those receiving or purchasing drones after Dec. 21 will be required to register prior to their first outdoor flight.
Once a UAS is entered into the federal system, the owner is issued an identification number for all of their hobby drones that is valid for three years. Registrants must be at least 13 years old to use the system.
“Make no mistake: Unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the release. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”
In order to boost registration, the agency said it will be waiving the $5 fee until Jan. 20, 2016.
While the current UAS marketplace extends far past just hobby drones into the larger commercial drones, the current registration system does not yet support non-hobby aircraft. According to the FAA, new enhancements are being developed to support commercial UASs.