Drone Registration: User-Friendly and More!

The Federal Aviation Administration has announced “a streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small unmanned aircraft (‘UAS’) weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras.”


Below is the text of the press release, summarizing the the 211-page recommendation (here) released on December 14, 2015. But, first, some analysis:

Rather than imposing administrative burdens on end-users, aviation regulators should focus on public education and safety at the producer level. The FAA has rolled out several public outreach campaigns such as “Know Before You Fly” and “No Drone Zone,” along with a smart phone application. The FAA’s recreational drone registration regime speaks to the ineffectiveness of such efforts. A better approach is to have drone manufacturers, distributors, and retailers provide packaging inserts, manuals, warnings, and product literature that clearly details how, when, and where to fly responsibly.

Additionally, regulators should let the marketplace lead. To do otherwise is to favor legal theory over practice. Initiatives like the FAA’s “Pathfinder,” where government and industry collaborate in managing the airspace ecosystem, are sensible. But, manufacturers have an independent incentive to promote safety through customer support and available hardware and software solutions. And, many such solutions already exist, including “fly away” software, ADS-B, sense-and-avoid, geo-fencing, counter-drone jamming technology, cellular and satellite imagery, and other firmware that restricts drones from flying into restricted spaces.

In the final analysis, the law traditionally lags technology and the FAA certainly should not be blamed for that reality. The FAA is rightly taking steps to reimagine a national airspace system originally designed for manned assets. This is not an easy task. But, it is not an impossible task either as demonstrated in Australia, Canada, France, and South Africa, where rules for drone operations are in place—some since 2002.  The fact remains, as Secretary Foxx said in announcing recreational drone registration, “it’s really hard to follow rules if you don’t know what the rules are, or that the rules apply to you.” Declaring unnecessary emergencies, like evasive flight maneuvers, does not solve that problem, it prejudices considered policy making and is avoidable in the first place.

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “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.”

Registration is a statutory requirement that applies to all aircraft.  Under this rule, any owner of a small UAS who has previously operated an unmanned aircraft exclusively as a model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015, must register no later than February 19, 2016. Owners of any other UAS purchased for use as a model aircraft after December 21, 2015 must register before the first flight outdoors. Owners may use either the paper-based process or the new streamlined, web-based system.  Owners using the new streamlined web-based system must be at least 13 years old to register.

Owners may register through a web-based system at: www.faa.gov/uas/registration

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.

Owners using the model aircraft for hobby or recreation will only have to register once and may use the same identification number for all of their model UAS. The registration is valid for three years.

The normal registration fee is $5, but in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to register quickly, the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days (from Dec. 21, 2015 to Jan 20, 2016).

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Huerta. “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 online registration system does not yet support registration of small UAS used for any purpose other than hobby or recreation – for example, using an unmanned aircraft in connection with a business. The FAA is developing enhancements that will allow such online registrations by spring of 2016.