Thoughts on the FAA Drone Registration Rules

On December 14, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a new set of rules requiring owners of all small unmanned aircraft weighing more than 0.55 lb (0.25kg) and less than 55 lb (25kg) to register on their new web-based system.

Registration is required for ALL aircraft – fixed-wing or rotorcraft, fitting the weight description above, and must be completed by February 19, 2016. There is a registration fee of $5, but for now the fee is waived and owners can register free until January 20, 2016.

Registration is available at: http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration  and for more information, the FAQs at: http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/faqs/

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Michael 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.”

Registrants will have to provide their name, home address, and email address. They will receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership with a unique number to be displayed on their aircraft. Owners of multiple aircraft need only register once, and their unique number must be displayed on all aircraft owned and operated by that person.

As expected, many voices have been raised in objection against the registration of what many call “toys.”

#1 Cost:  Let’s face it – at $5 a pop, the FAA isn’t going to rake in a windfall, even if a million people register, which doesn’t seem realistic.

To be sure, $5 million is a significant amount and could go a long way toward filling some shortfalls. But in the context of a total budget of about $15.4 billion, is it program-altering? Hardly.

Besides, if one can spend $50, $150, or $1500 on a toy, the $5 fee is trivial. And as mentioned above – it’s free to register before Jan 20. 

So really, it’s never been about the money.

#2. Inconvenience: Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to go through the process, but the point is that if anything like an accident or worse were to happen, there is benefit to having the ability to track the responsible party.

Think about why we register our cars: Driving a car is a privilege that comes with certain costs and responsibilities such as maintaining the vehicle in good and safe working order, proper education and training, and a practical demonstration of ability, i.e., actual proficiency in driving the car. And we all know the stories about going to one’s local DMV — the inconvenience and hassles are legendary.

Obviously a critical aspect of car registration is the ability to track down those who violate their responsibilities or other laws – those could include anything from scofflaws, accidents, hit-and-runs up to criminal offenders.

In the FAA’s view (and ours), operating a drone is likewise a privilege, and should be perceived in the same sense as driving a car.

Anyone operating in the low-level airspace should expect to bear some cost in return for the privilege of using the airspace. Flying a drone likewise comes with the responsibility to be educated and trained in the proper – and safe – use not only of the machine, but also of the airspace, including all the usual elements of wind, weather, altitude restrictions (for drones), and most importantly, collision avoidance.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of drones purchased and given as gifts over the past weeks, how many recipients of those drones realize that there are at least a dozen other legal, manned flight operations utilizing the low-altitude airspace from the surface up to 400 feet? And how many understand that a 1- or 2-pound drone really and truly can cause crippling damage to a full-size aircraft?

So in our view, rather than being about cost, convenience, or some nebulous, conspiratorial “Big Brother” reason, the FAA  means what it says: it’s all about education, safety, flying responsibly, and preventing airspace conflicts leading to accidents, injuries, or worse. Interposing the act of registration between the purchase and operation of a drone – toy or not – just might make the user think about what s/he is about to do. That is the intent.

There are those individuals who will always object to or ignore the rules, or think nothing bad will ever happen to them.  You might feel quite differently if you were a pilot operating at low altitudes such as ag applicators (crop dusters), medevac, firefighters, law enforcement, and others.

To be clear on this point – no one wants to limit the use of drones, we simply want all drone users – whether you call them toys or something else – to understand that manned flights always have priority, to be educated and trained to operate in a manner that avoids collisions or near-misses in the airspace, and to have the knowledge to act quickly to deconflict an imminent accident.

In our view also, professional drone pilots and long-time RC airplane pilots know the rules, understand why they exist, and comply with them because their livelihoods depend upon them and they understand the potential consequences of not doing so.

The new rules are primarily aimed at educating the casual or recreational user who does not know completely how their new toy works, what its safety features are, or what to do about loss-of-contact. They also  have a higher likelihood of not being aware of legal, low-altitude manned flights, wind effects, or how their “little” 1- or 2- pound machine can inflict damage on a full-size aircraft or cause an accident by interfering with a manned flight.

The Colorado UAS Safety Coalition (of which this author is a member) has been very active in getting the word out about low-level ops that drones are legally responsible to avoid. We strongly urge the new or novice drone pilot to visit our website, which contains details on low-level flight operations, relevant videos, and other information critical to keeping the low-level airspace safe and free of conflict for all operators. Visit ThinkBeforeYouLaunch.org

Whether or not you agree with the FAA’s new rule, the proliferation of drone usage has in fact become a growing hazard of great concern to pilots. With the increasing number of close encounters during 2015  - more than 700 – we and many others are strongly in favor of educating and regulating drone pilots, because the feeling was, and still is, that it’s only a matter of time until an irresponsible drone operator causes something bad to happen.

And that will spoil things for everyone.

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Hangar Network LLC is a longtime member of the Colorado Aviation Business Association which in turn is a member organization of the Colorado General Aviation Alliance.

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Staff Writer & Technical Support
Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association
President, Colorado General Aviation Alliance