FAA Task Force Recommends Registration for All Drones 250 Grams and Up

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Photo: Robert Lz via Fllickr

Over the weekend, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s acronym-laden Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration Task Force (RTF) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) released its final report, consisting of a set of recommendations on how the FAA should implement mandatory registration of consumer drones. The most immediately relevant is the minimum mass required for registration, which is a mere 250 grams (a little more than half a pound). In other words, if your drone weighs more than 250 grams, the FAA’s drone registration will most likely apply to you.

In addition to details on the registration process, the 18-page document also includes some justification for why the task force made the recommendations it did. So, before you get out your pitchforks to protest the 250-gram weight threshold, let’s take a look at where it came from.

Why 250 Grams?

In determining its minimum requirements for small UAS (sUAS) that would need to be registered, the Task Force was concerned primarily with the safety of a hypothetical human on the ground, and what would happen if a wayward drone smacked said human in the head. Due to lack of data, they did not consider “UAS-aircraft collisions, engine ingestion, propeller, and rotor impacts by UAS,” although the report notes that “task force members representing manned aircraft organizations expressed specific concerns” about this omission.

Obviously, mass is only one component of how dangerous a drone might be in this situation: there’s also velocity to consider, among other things. But, trying to work in a bunch of other factors would be complicated, and the Task Force thought that might dissuade people registering their drones at all, so they just went with mass and nothing else.

To come up with the 250-gram minimum mass, the Task Force cited a study showing that “an object with a kinetic energy level of 80 joules (or approximately 59 foot-pounds) has a 30 percent probability of being lethal when striking a person in the head,” and then solved for a reasonable mass and velocity (250 grams traveling at 25 m/s). By estimating the mean time between failures of sUAS and making the assumption that sUAS would be flying over densely populated urban areas (even though they’re not supposed to), the Task Force came up with a ground fatality risk of “4.7 x 10-8, or less than 1 ground fatality for every 20,000,000 flighthours of an sUAS.” This is about 10 times more dangerous than the acceptable risk levels for commercial aviation (air transport of passengers and cargo), and 1000 times safer than the actual risk levels for general aviation (which includes commercial aviation plus all other kinds of flying things), and the Task Force judged this to be “a reasonably acceptable risk level.”

This wasn’t an easy decision for the Task Force to make, as the report notes:

“The Task Force spent considerable time discussing and deliberating about what the appropriate weight threshold should be. While general agreement was ultimately reached on the 250 gram weight, there were Task Force members who believed it was too conservative, as the weight could negatively impact the credibility of the sUAS registration program and thus lessen compliance levels because it would require registration of some sUAS generally considered to be in the ‘toy’ category. Others took the opposite view that there should be no registration exemption for UAS of any size. There was also concern that other countries are considering or have already established regulatory cutoffs at much higher weights of 1 kilogram or 2 kilograms. Some also felt there was insufficient time afforded to fully evaluate the calculations and assumptions made that resulted in the 250 gram cutoff weight, particularly because the typical approved operation of small UAS, unlike the typical operation of manned aircraft, does not involve flight over unprotected people.

Certain task force members noted that the FAA’s 25 years of bird strike data show that fatal aircraft accidents caused by small and medium birds (weighing four pounds on average) are extremely rare despite the presence of billions of birds within the low altitudes where small UAS typically fly, and urged the FAA to select a weight that posed a similar safety risk.”

Having said all that, the Task Force is recommending the 250 gram threshold for registration, and that’s that, although they did ask the FAA to avoid using this threshold for anything but registration: they’re not saying that >250 grams is somehow “less safe” and <250 grams is somehow “more safe”—this is just what they came up with as a registration cutoff, and nothing else.

Register Your Drone

Here’s how the Task Force envisions the registration process going:

  1. You buy a drone. If it weighs more than 250 grams (including payload), you go to a website to register your drone before flying it outside. There may be an option to register your drone when you buy it, but it won’t be mandatory.
  2. On the website, you enter your full name and street address. You don’t need to give the FAA an email address, telephone number, or any specific information about your drone (although you can if you want). You also don’t need any kind of proof of citizenship, although you do need to be 13 or older due to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Younger kids can still fly drones, but they’ll need a parent or guardian to register them.
  3. There will probably be some “Know Before You Fly” stuff for you to look through during the registration process, although it won’t be a test, just a sort of “click here to acknowledge that you have read and understand this information.”
  4. There’s no fee.
  5. You’ll immediately receive a digital certificate of registration that contains a unique universal registration number. For a little bit of money, you can ask the FAA to mail you a physical copy, too. 
  6. You’ll need to somehow put your registration number onto your drone so that it’s “readily accessible” before you fly the drone outside. This isn’t the same as “clearly visible”: you can hide the number in an enclosed battery compartment, for example, as long as tools aren’t required to access it.
  7. You should be prepared to show your registration certificate whenever you’re out flying your drone. 
  8. If you get more drones, they’ll just use the same registration number that you already have: the number is associated with you, not with your drone. You’ll have the option to delete your registration if you stop flying your drone(s).

That’s it.

What About Violations?

The FAA still needs to figure out how to enforce all this, and what happens if something goes wrong. For example, while the Task Force recommends that you should be prepared to show your registration certificate when you’re flying your drone, it’s unclear who you’d have to show it too, and under what circumstances, not to mention the consequences of not complying. Luckily for all of us, the Task Force does at least recognize the the current framework should definitely not be applied to sUAS:

“The Task Force recommends that the FAA establish a clear and proportionate penalty framework for violations. Current registration-related penalties (perhaps exceeding $25,000) were established in order to address and deter suspected drug traffickers and tax evaders who failed to register aircraft as part of larger nefarious schemes. Any person flying an sUAS, including consumers and juveniles, may now find themselves inadvertently in violation of this new system. The Task Force recommends that the FAA expressly establish a reasonable and proportionate penalty schedule that is distinct from those relating to traditional manned aviation.”

What Happens Next?

Adjusting, approving, and implementing the rules are up to the FAA now, but from the sound of things, they’re going to move fast. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta released a few statements on the report over the last few days; here’s the one worth caring about:

“We will consider [the Task Force] recommendations and the public comments as we develop an Interim Final Rule on registration, which will likely be released next month and go into effect shortly thereafter. This step will be followed by another opportunity for the public to comment as we move toward issuing a final rule on registration.”

Next month is December, so it still looks like the FAA is shooting to have something up and running by the time an estimated 400,000 new drones arrive for the holidays. But remember, even if you don’t get a new drone next month, these rules will be retroactive, and you’ll need to register in order to (legally) fly drones that you currently own.

Our guess is that whatever the penalty framework for violations ends up being, at least initially, it’ll be pretty forgiving as people get used to the new system. The FAA mostly just wants people to fly their drones safely, and registration that connects you with your drone encourages accountability while also giving the FAA at least one opportunity to inform each pilot about existing regulations designed to make things as safe and fun as possible for everybody.

[ Task Force Report (pdf) ]

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