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The Skies Are Alive With the Sound Of Drones: The FAA Implements Drone Registration Requirements

It happened again—another incident involving an errant drone and a resident from the Garden State. As reported by various news sources, a New Jersey man attempted to photograph the Empire State Building with his drone. He was arrested on reckless endangerment charges after crashing the drone into this iconic building. This is just the latest of numerous reported drone-related incidents, all of which pose serious risks to innocent bystanders.

The potential dangers that drones create have not escaped notice by governmental authorities. In Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department formed an anti-drone police unit, which uses specialized drones to catch drones operating in unauthorized airspace. In the Netherlands, the Dutch National Police are working with Guard From Above, a security firm developing a “low tech solution for a high tech problem.” According to Guard from Above, hostile drones are the high tech problem and birds of prey, including bald eagles, are the low tech solution used to “intercept hostile drones.” It remains to be seen how much of a growth opportunity exists in this niche.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken less drastic measures to address the rising interest in drones through education efforts and enhancing operator accountability. After issuing proposed regulations governing commercial drone use almost a year ago, the FAA recently followed up with registration requirements for recreational drone use by individuals. These requirements went into effect on December 21, 2015 and are found at Part 48 in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, titled "Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft.”

Individual drone operators and retailers that sell drones to consumers need to be aware of the FAA’s registration requirements:

  • Registration is required for the recreational use of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or “sUAS.” These are “aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft” that weigh between 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and 55 pounds on takeoff, including everything onboard or attached to the aircraft.
  • Drones purchased on or after December 21, 2015 must be registered with the FAA before being operated. Drones that were purchased and operated before December 21, 2015 can continue to be operated, but they must be registered by February 19, 2016.
  • Registration is available by mail or online through the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Registration website.
  • Registration requires only the registrant’s name, home address, and e-mail address. Registrants have the option of either providing their drone’s serial number or labeling their drones with an FAA-issued identification code.
  • After paying a $5.00 registration fee, individuals will receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration, which is valid for three years and applies to all sUAS operated by the registrant.
  • As part of the registration process, registrants must acknowledge their intent to follow drone safety guidelines. The FAA also has developed a smartphone app called B4UFLY, which helps operators avoid restricted airspace.
  • These regulations do not apply to drones operated for commercial purposes or by companies. Commercial drone use remains subject to previous limitations and the paper-based traditional aircraft registration process. The FAA is working on an online registration system for drones owned by companies or used for commercial purposes. This online registration system should be available by mid-2016.

The penalties for failing to comply with the FAA’s registration requirements include civil fines up to $27,500 and criminal fines up to $250,000 and three years in prison. It is unclear exactly how the FAA will enforce these regulations or assess penalties, although it appears the FAA initially will rely on the discretion of local law enforcement.

Some commentators have questioned the scope of the FAA’s authority to implement these regulations, and others have raised important privacy concerns with the registration process. Nonetheless, it is clear that drones are here to stay and that effective regulations are needed to promote safety in the national airspace without harming innovation and technological development.