On November 21, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee (“Task Force”) released its recommendations on registration requirements for small UAS, or “drones”, operated in the United States (including those used for commercial purposes, and all model aircraft).
Federal law (49 U.S.C. §4401(a)) requires that a person may only operate an aircraft when it is registered with the FAA. In 2012, Congress confirmed that drones, including those used for recreation and hobby purposes, are aircraft as defined by statute. However, the FAA does not currently enforce the registration requirement for drones used for recreation and hobby purposes, although it has required registration for commercial drone operators who have been granted operational authority by exemption.
The rapid increase in the number of small drones flown in the United States (estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands by the end of this year) has caused the FAA to re-evaluate its non-enforcement policy for registration of small drones used for recreation and hobby purposes. Specific concerns, per the report, are public safety and the safety of the National Airspace System.
The FAA Created a Task Force to Develop Ideas for a Registration Process for Small Drones
Consequently, the FAA charged the Task Force with developing recommendations for the creation of a registration process for those small drones. The FAA’s stated intent of establishing a registration framework is to “promote a culture of accountability, while achieving a maximum level of compliance.”
The Task Force included more than two dozen organizations with a diverse array of perspectives, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), retailers, drone manufacturers, law enforcement, and various UAS organizations. The FAA gave it the mandate to analyze drone registration issues under current statutes and rules and to develop recommendations to facilitate future drone registrations in order to attain wide compliance.
Specifically, the FAA gave the Task Force three objectives: (1) develop and recommend minimum requirements for UAS/drones that would need to be registered; (2) develop and recommend registration processes; and (3) develop and recommend methods for proving registration and marking.
The Task Force’s Recommendations
To that end, the Task Force conducted a series of meetings this fall, and issued a report that included the following recommendations:
- All small UAS/drones that weigh between 5.5 pounds and 55 pounds and operated outside in the National Airspace System should be registered with the FAA.
- Registration should include the registrant’s name and address. Provision of the registrant’s e-mail and telephone number, and serial number information would be optional.
- Registration should be owner-based, not product-based, so each owner should have a single registration number that applies to one or more drones.
- The registration number must be readily accessible and maintained in a condition that is readable and legible on close visual inspection. If the registrant chooses to provide the FAA with the drone’s serial number, the serial number must be similar readily accessible, readable and legible upon close visual inspection. Readily accessible means accessed without the use of tools.
- Drones must be registered before they are operated in the National Airspace System, but need not be registered at the point of sale.
- The registration process should be web-based, also including the use of “apps”, and registrants should be able to modify their information through the web or apps.
- No registration fee should be charged.
- Registrants should not be required to be U.S. citizens or residents.
- Registrants should be 13 years of age or older to register; children under that age should operate a small drone only a parent or guardian’s registration.
Beyond recommending that the FAA establish a clear, reasonable and proportionate penalty schedule for violations that is distinct from those relating to traditional manned aviation, the Task Force did not articulate specific penalties for non-compliance with new registration rules.
The Task Force report is clear that it provides only recommendations, and that the FAA has not implemented any drone-specific registration rules at this time. However, it is anticipated the FAA will do so in December 2015.
The Task Force report noted that the recommendations were reached in a spririt of cooperation and compromise. Already there is some controversy as to the FAA’s reach and accelerated rulemaking timeline, as the potential rules could affect a broad swath of stakeholders. Legal challenges may be on the horizon if the FAA implements registration rules as recommended, even as relatively simple as they may appear. In addition to possible challenges to these recommended registration requirements, drone use already raises product liability, cybersecurity, and privacy legal issues. Stay tuned for further developments in this rapidly-evolving area of federal regulation.