The Federal Aviation Administration issued rules today that will require all drones to be registered with the federal government by February of 2016.
The "registration rule" was announced by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx back in October, and we learned in broad strokes what the rule would look like last month after an independent task force established by the FAA issued its recommendations. Monday, the FAA released its final rule, which will become effective December 21—just days before an estimated 1 million people open up a drone as a Christmas present.
The FAA will require every person who owns a drone to pay $5 to register it on a website. People flying strictly for hobby purposes will have to pay a total of $5, regardless of how many drones they own. The FAA says that those caught flying without registering a drone can face civil penalties of up to $27,500 and criminal fines of up to $250,000 and/or up to three years of prison time. Registration is free during the first 30 days of the program.
While there was initial pushback against the idea of the federal government requiring the registration of all drones (while it doesn't require the registration of, say, guns), most in the industry seem to agree that registration will ultimately be a good thing for the hobby.
The FAA tends to exaggerate the number and severity of instances in which drones are flown dangerously, but it is true that many people do fly them quite recklessly—a drone fell on a baby back in September, for instance. Often, that's a matter of ignorance, as there's nothing stopping someone from unwrapping a Phantom 3 for Christmas and immediately flying it as high as he or she can over crowds of people. The fear is that a drone will crash into an airplane or fall on someone’s head.
The hope is to inform people about safe flying practices during the registration process, which will keep people from flying like idiots, which will improve the overall safety of the national airspace, which will keep people from looking at drones as a scourge. Theoretically.
That said, there are many reasons to question whether or not the FAA is going about this in the proper way. The task force recommended that drone registration be free; the FAA says it's statutorily required to charge people to pay. The FAA says it will use the money to offset costs for the program, which it estimates will cost $383 million. If you can afford a drone, you can probably afford the $5 it costs to register it. But with payment comes many more potential pitfalls.
I read the FAA's 211 page explanation of the regulation, and there are still lots of questions—some of which cannot be answered by a PDF file.
Will the site be secure? Will it be functional? Will it be encrypted? How will the data be stored? Will the FAA store your credit card data? Will it use a third-party payment system or develop one in-house? How are people going to learn about the program? Will manufacturers put a note on or in the box? How will people who already fly drones but aren’t closely tuned in to the community learn about this? Is the FAA really going to fine a teenager $27,500 or put him in jail if he didn't know he was supposed to register his drone?
“One of the challenges to get people to go do it. The details aren’t surprising, but I think we'll have to see how it goes with implementation,” Lisa Ellman, a drone-focused attorney at Hogan Lovells law firm told me. “The challenge will be getting the word out in a way that makes for a successful program.”
"The FAA has determined that it is impracticable and contrary to the public interest ... to proceed with further notice and comment"
These are questions the FAA hasn't answered—it only says that payments will be accepted using a "web-based registration application process" and that it will accept all major credit cards, prepaid gift cards, debit cards, and check or money order.
The FAA hopes to launch this entire web-based system before Christmas. Expecting the government to set up a user-friendly, functioning, multi-million dollar web portal and database in the matter of two months—assuming the agency got started on it as soon as the program was announced in October—seems optimistic. I’ve never had many problems with the FAA’s website, but its databases are difficult to search and are certainly not user-friendly. Other sites that have been rushed out, like Healthcare.gov, have been barely functional at launch.
Everything about this process has been rushed—the FAA admits it in the report and official regulation it released Monday. There's not even time, it says, to have a normal commenting period for the public to weigh in on this “interim final rule.”
"The FAA has determined that it is impracticable and contrary to the public interest in ensuring the safety of the [national air space] and people and property on the ground to proceed with further notice and comment on aircraft registration requirements for small unmanned aircraft before implementing the streamlined registry system established by this rule," it wrote. "The public interest served by the notice and comment process is outweighed by the significant increase in risk that the public will face with the immediate proliferation of new small unmanned aircraft that will be introduced into the [national air space] in the weeks ahead."
The FAA appears to have tried to make this process as easy as possible—it says registration will take no more than five minutes. That's great, if it ends up being true. Whether the FAA gets it right is another question altogether.