Government Task Force Wants All Drone Pilots To Register In A Database (Even You)

Not official yet, but rules would apply to drones as small as 0.5 lbs

In the near future (possibly by the end of this year) Americans will have to register almost all of the small personal drones they buy in a great big government database that the public can’t access. At least, that’s one possible conclusion in the the final report from the FAA’s task force, appointed to study and provide recommendations for future drone laws.

The task force, which drew heavily on the existing aviation and retail industries, released their proposed rules for registering drones this weekend. While the task force won’t set the law, their recommendations will likely shape what drone law actually becomes.

Officially titled the “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration Task Force (RTF) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC)”, the group was assembled by the FAA last month to solve the problem of registering unmanned aircraft — an expansive definition for flying machines that may include everything from jet-sized Global Hawk drones to tiny paper airplanes with motors attached.

To steer the task force’s thinking, the FAA provided them with 14 questions on registration, like: “At what point should registration occur (e.g., point-of-sale (POS) or prior to operation)? How should transfers of ownership be addressed in registration?” and “How should the registration data be stored? Who should have access to the registration data? How should the data be used?”

These are big questions, especially given the category is big enough to include everything from homemade toy planes to giant machines akin to those used by the military. And the questions asked were pretty reasonable. The summarized version sounds like a pretty straightforward process:

Drones weighing 250 grams or less (or roughly 0.5 lbs) would be exempt from these requirements, and drones larger than 55 pounds would get a different process. Owners of drones larger than that would register with an app or a website, and they’d have to provide their name and street address before their first flight. They’d have the option of providing email address, telephone number, and serial number of the aircraft.

Like an online account for email or social media, would-be drone owners would have to say they’re at least 13 years old to register (though proof-of-age would be difficult to enforce). They would have to provide their name and street address, as well as the number of drones they wanted to register. Then, they would receive a unique drone owner number, and they could either mark their drone(s) with the owner number, or a unique aircraft serial number. These numbers are supposed to be visible on the body of the drone, according to the task force’s proposed regulations, making it possible for bystanders and other pilots to see the number on the aircraft they saw — sort of like license plates on a car.

And, in a break from existing registration laws, no one would need to be a U.S. citizen to register his or her drone, so foreign tourists could in theory bring their quadcopters to the country, register them online, and fly them legally.

In addition, the task force recommends a training component with the registration process, like the “Know Before You Fly” social media campaign that the FAA and drone industry groups launched for the 2014 winter holiday season (though the impact of that campaign remains unclear).

There’s some great math in this study (no, really!) that gets into the probability of tiny drones falling on people’s heads and killing them. After a few pages of questions, the task force reaches an estimate that drones weighing less than 250 grams, and also flying below certain altitudes and under certain speeds, would result in “less than 1 ground fatality for every 20,000,000 flight hours”.

While not a direct comparison, the Department of Transportation provides that in highway traffic in 2013 there was just over 1 fatality per million miles driven, so a standard of just 1 fatality per 20 million hours flown at least looks like an acceptable risk for most Americans. Drones this size also pose little, if any more risk to airplanes than that already posed by birds.

The math is good, but not all the policy implications are. One of the stranger recommendations is that the FAA should collect registration data for the government and then NOT disclose any of that data through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to journalists:

No law is made in a vacuum. Here’s how several industry groups responded to the announcement of the task force recommendations. Bear in mind that the FAA still has to decide what, if any, should be actually enforced as a matter of policy. So as of right now, drones follow the current regulations, which require that privately-owned drones flown for non-commercial purposes stay below 400 feet and 5 miles or further away from airports; and any owners of drones used for commercial purposes apply for, and receive, a certificate of permission to fly.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents model airplane enthusiasts and participated in the task force, was disappointed by the results, writing in part:

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone industry lobbying group that was part of the task force, supported the group’s work, but says the FAA needs to do more to integrate drones into American skies, with their statement reading in part: “The FAA’s small UAS rulemaking has been beset by several delays. Considering that safety is at stake, we cannot afford to continue waiting. The FAA needs to make UAS integration a top priority.”

DJI, the Chinese company responsible for the enormously popular series of Phantom drone for consumers (instantly recognizable by their white and red or yellow striped bodies), also participated in the task force. DJI released a statement today reading in part:

Read the full list of recommendations here. And remember, if you get a drone this holiday season or have one already, fly safe!

Kelsey D. Atherton
Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.