WASHINGTON – Owners of consumer drones will have to begin registering with the U.S. government starting next week under a policy issued in time for the expected holiday buying rush.
All but the smallest toys will qualify for tracking by the Federal Aviation Administration as the agency attempts to impose order on the burgeoning hobbyist use of the unmanned craft. Drones must be registered starting Dec. 21 and the agency will charge a $5 fee, which is required under current law, according to the FAA.
Incidents in which drones have flown close to traditional aircraft or in prohibited zones have surged this year in spite of industry and FAA efforts to educate the public on their proper use.
“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at press conference Monday. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely.”
The announcement marks an evolution in how small drones are treated by the government, which had initially taken more of a hands-off policy but now believes rules are needed to ensure safety. It also prompted objections from some hobbyist and industry groups.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which has for decades represented model aircraft operators, issued a statement saying the regulation violates language in a 2012 law passed by Congress that exempted its members from new government rules.
“AMA is disappointed with the new rule,” Dave Mathewson, the group’s executive director, said in the statement.
The FAA believes it has authority to regulate drones because the same 2012 law defines all unmanned vehicles as aircraft under U.S. law, Michael Whitaker, the FAA’s deputy administrator, said in the press conference.
The Consumer Technology Association, an electronics- industry trade group, blasted the FAA in a Dec. 10 press release for including a fee in the registration rule. The charge would be “essentially a drone tax” and would undermine the government’s goal of getting widespread compliance, Douglas Johnson, vice president for technology policy, said in the release.
Civilian drones weighing more than 250 grams (0.55 pounds) must be registered and identified with markings so that authorities have a better chance of finding the owner in the event of an illegal flight or crash, Whitaker said. People can register once and apply it to multiple drones.
The registration is good for three years and there’s a provision allowing someone to cancel a registration if they sell a drone.
The agency will not charge the $5 fee for the first 30 days, he said. Current U.S. law requires that the agency charge the fee, which is the same for small private planes and airliners, he said.
People who bought drones before Dec. 21 have until Feb. 19 to register them with the government. Anyone who buys a drone after Dec. 21 must register before flying it outdoors, according to Whitaker.
Once a person registers, they can use that registration for multiple drones, he said. If people ignore the new rule, the government has existing laws to take enforcement action, he said.
The government accepted most of the recommendations of a task force of drone- and aviation-industry representatives. In spite of that, some drone operators began objecting to registration even before it was finalized.
The registration doesn’t apply to drones operated for hire, which must already be registered with the government. The FAA is drafting separate regulations it expects to complete next year to govern small commercial drones.
The CTA estimates there will be 700,000 consumer drones sold in the U.S. this year, an increase of 63 percent compared to last year. As many as 400,000 of the devices will be sold during the holidays, according to the group.
A trade group representing drone manufacturers, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, praised the FAA action.
“Though it may not be perfect, this process and final rule shows that industry and government can come together quickly to develop policy,” AUVSI President Brian Wynne said in an e-mailed statement. Wynne urged the FAA to complete regulations for commercial drones as soon as possible.