Late last month, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee (FAAUASRTFARC) released a report consisting of a set of recommendations on how the FAA should implement mandatory registration of consumer drones. You can read all about that here. The key word there (besides FAAUASRTFARC) is “recommendations,” meaning that how the FAA would in practice set up drone registration was still a bit of a mystery. Yesterday, the FAA announced the actual rules that pretty much everyone who flies a drone will have to follow. The good news is that the FAA took most of the committee’s suggestions, but the bad news is that it didn’t take all of them.
Here’s the important stuff:
If you have a drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds but less than 55 pounds (total flying weight including anything it’s carrying), you must register it. It’s now the law. Lighter drones don’t have to register at all, and heavier ones (as well as drones for commercial use) are registered through a separate process involving paper (ugh).
If you buy a new drone on or after December 21, 2015, you must register it before flying it outdoors. If you currently own a drone, you must register it no later than February 19, 2016.
Drone registration opens December 21 at http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/, and right now, that website is the only place to register your drone. You can also do it the old way, with paper, if you’re crazy.
Registration costs US $5, but this fee is waived for the first 30 days that registration is open. For hobbyists, this $5 fee will cover your entire “fleet” of drones, and it’s valid for three years, after which you’ll need to pay $5 to renew.
During the registration process, you will have to provide your complete name, physical address, mailing address, and an email address, but no information about your drone, as long as you’re just using it for fun (as opposed to profit). You’ll also need to provide a credit card; the card will be charged $5, which will be immediately refunded during the first 30 days of registration.
You need to be over 13 years of age to register a drone. You do not need to be a U.S. citizen.
Before completing registration, you’ll be required to “review a summary of sUAS operational guidelines.” Good times.
The FAA estimates that the registration process will take you 5 minutes. Once you’ve registered, you’ll get a unique registration number that you must put on all of your drones. It has to be visible, but visible can include places like the battery compartment, as long as you can access it without tools.
You’ll be able to access your registration at any time, and cancel it if your drone gets sold or destroyed.
You can fly drones that aren’t registered to you, but you must have the registration document with you (an electronic copy is fine).
If you fly a drone without registering it, bad stuff could happen to you, although all the specifics that the FAA provided were the following maximums: “civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.”
That’s all reasonably straightforward, although it gets a lot more nuanced: the actual document is 211 pages long and includes all kinds of public comments and the FAA’s responses (many of which, reading between the lines, leads me to think that the FAA felt that a whole bunch of the comments were utterly crazypants). You can read it here, but we did already, and here’s a bunch of informationalistic stuff from it that may or may not be relevant to you:
To clarify, the FAA sometimes calls recreational drones “model aircraft,” which confused me for a while.
The $5 fee is annoying, but serves three purposes. First (and the dumbest purpose), the FAA is legally required to charge for this; it’s the same amount that they charge for manned aircraft, and they’ve been charging $5 for that since 1966. The task force recommended a charge of $0.01 if this was the case, but oh well. Second, it helps fund the FAA’s drone registration program, which is estimated to cost $56 million through 2020. And third, by requiring you to pay money with a credit card, it helps to authenticate users who could otherwise just put in whoever’s name and address they wanted.
For people who aren’t U.S. citizens, you can still register your drone, but instead of a registration certificate, you’ll get a “certificate of ownership.” All the other requirements are the same, and the FAA considers the certificate to be essentially the same, it’s just a legal thing that they can’t technically register an aircraft to a non-citizen. Best of all, since you’re not technically registering, you can ask the FAA to refund your $5, woohoo!
If your drone is tethered, you still have to register it. Sorry, CyPhy. And the weight of the tether is included in the takeoff weight of the drone.
The rules consistently refer to weight and not mass, suggesting that a large autonomous blimp could go unregistered. We’re also not sure about registration requirements for rockets or kites. Here are the definitions: an unmanned aircraft is “an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft” and a model aircraft is “an unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere, flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft, and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.” So, yeah, kites…?
“In the spring of 2016, the FAA will open the streamlined registration process to small unmanned aircraft used for purposes other than as model aircraft.” For commercial stuff, in other words. That’ll cost more ($5 per drone) and you’ll have to provide information about the drone itself, because the FAA figures that commercial drones will be used more often and in more dangerous ways than drones that are being flown for fun.
This is the entirety of what we know about penalties and enforcement: “The FAA believes that its compliance philosophy, supported by an established safety culture, is instrumental in ensuring both compliance with regulations and the identification of hazards and management of risk. If an individual or entity is found to have not registered the aircraft prior to its operation, the FAA’s compliance philosophy will be applied appropriately.” Okay then.
“The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association, and Alaska Legislative Task Force on Unmanned Aircraft Systems recommended that UAS should be required to be more visible to manned aircraft to avoid collision by requiring UAS to be equipped with strobe lights and painted conspicuous colors.” The FAA didn’t go for this, unfortunately.
“For non-modelers, we assume that on average, all sUAS fail within a year and are replaced in the next year. For modelers we use the assumption that an average of ten percent of the modelers’ sUAS survive into a second year, because they are used less intensively. These assumptions are based on manufacturers’ information.” Interesting.
“The FAA assigns an hourly value of $19.13 per hour for the value of time for model aircraft registrants.” Wow, the FAA thinks I work cheap! Good thing IEEE Spectrum knows better...
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.