The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration, aka FAA, today announced a web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small unmanned aircraft – known as UAS for Unmanned Aerial Systems – weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds including payloads such as on-board cameras. Hundreds of thousands of these drones are expected to be sold during the holiday season. An untold, unregulated number are already in operation.
After heavy criticism by Congress about ignoring the threat to public safety and the lack of oversight by the agency responsible for airspace, as well as missed deadlines to do its regulatory job, the so-called Registration Task Force delivered recommendations to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on November 21.
The rule just issued uses only some of the task force recommendations. Critics say that the threats to general and commercial aviation as well as national security have not been addressed since the users will not have a pilot’s license or training of any sort about airspace rules. Worse, the potentially deadly drones will not have a transponder on board so they can be tracked. It’s a terrorist’s dream – buying over the counter drones that can conduct surveillance, and deliver biological or conventional explosives.
A report by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, found that 327 incidents between December 2013 and September 2015 posed a “proximity danger” where an unmanned aircraft got within 500 feet of a plane, helicopter or other manned aircraft or when a pilot determined a drone was dangerously close.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of incidents that have been reported by pilots and air traffic controllers,” Dan Gettinger told NPR. He is one of the authors of the study and co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Drone.
After years of ignoring growing airspace problems and threats to public safety, including drones halting firefighting operations and interfering with instrument approaches at airports, registration, however weak, is now a statutory requirement that applies to all of these potentially deadly toy aircraft. Under this rule, any owner of a small UAS who previously operated an unmanned 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 can use either the paper-based process or the web-based system. Owners using the web must be at least 13 years old to register, but there appears to be no way of checking on that or the validity of the registration.
“The real goal is to create a culture of accountability and safety—and that means giving operators the information they need to fly safely while making it as easy as possible for them to participate in the system,” says Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs, who represented the association on the panel.
“This is a good start, but the drone industry is relatively new, and we need to be prepared to make adjustments as we learn more,” Coon told AutoInformed.
“Coming to consensus on the complex issues surrounding drone registration was challenging given the short time period and diverse perspectives in the group,” says Coon. “Throughout the process AOPA argued for rules that would ensure safety, protect the National Airspace System, and support participation and innovation in the drone community. We hope to see the drone industry continue to develop technical solutions that will help make it possible for them to safely share the National Airspace System with manned aircraft.”
Registrants will 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 an identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft. The registration is valid for three years.
The normal registration fee is a paltry $5, but the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days from Dec. 21, 2015 to Jan 20, 2016.
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, tardy again, says it is developing “enhancements” that will allow such online registrations by spring of 2016.