Remote control airplanes have been a hobbyist pursuit for decades. While traditional remote control helicopters have enjoyed relatively-little interest, helicopter-type aerial devices, known as “drones” (borrowed from autonomous military UAV variety), have become popular toys, outdoor photographic platforms, and mall kiosk harridans. Drones are increasingly complex and capable, with retail giants such as Amazon planning a fleet of unmanned drones to deliver diapers, chewing tobacco, and perhaps even books conveniently and quickly. With swarms of unmanned, battery operated, and propeller driven gadgets navigating our urban and suburban airspaces, what could go possibly wrong?
…much, actually. Not only are near misses with commercial aircraft frequently reported, but people from triathletes to babies have been injured by out-of-control drones and their spinning rotor blades. Thus, it was only a matter of time before U.S. regulators stepped in. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) announced a new drone registration process in accordance with a new Section 48 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. A drone, because it is a “contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate or fly in the air” is thus an “aircraft” under federal statute1 and thus must be registered, subject to certain exceptions.2
Beginning on December 21, 2015, owners may register their small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) directly through the FAA here. The express purposes of the registration requirement are: (i) to provide a means by which to quickly identify the sUAS in the event of an incident or accident involving the sUAS; and (ii) to provide an immediate and direct opportunity for the FAA to educate sUAS owners on safety requirements before they begin operating.3 The registration process for sUAS, whether they are intended for use as a model (i.e., for recreational purposes) or otherwise includes providing applicant’s name, physical address (and mailing address if different than physical address), and e-mail address to the FAA to be maintained in a database.4 Where the sUAS is intended to be used other than for recreational purposes, the FAA will want the applicant’s authorized representative’s information (where applicable) and the sUAS’s manufacturer and model name, and serial number, if available.4 sUAS which are between 0.55 and 55 lbs at takeoff are subject to the registration requirements5 and the FAA will collect a $5 fee for each aircraft so registered.6
All aforementioned sUAS required to be registered must be so before February 19, 2016.7 Against owners who fail to register and yet still operate their sUAS, the FAA is empowered to apply civil penalties up to $27,500,8 and criminal penalties for failure to register can include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment up to 3 years.9
For his trouble in registering his sUAS “aircraft,” the sUAS owner obtains a Certificate of Registration10 and has his submitted information accessible to law enforcement agencies within the FAA’s database,11 as well as the general public via the unique identifier provided to the owner during sUAS aircraft registration12
As the U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledged, these nascent regulations have been subject to a tremendous amount of commentary and suggestion from numerous consumer agencies, and it is unlikely that the framework will persist without amendment for very long. What is certain, however, is that what used to be an enthusiast’s hobby is becoming a much more accountable activity.
1 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6); see also, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Order No. EA-5730 at 12 (Nov. 17, 2014) (affirming that the statutory definition of aircraft is clear and unambiguous and “includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small.”).
2 49 U.S.C. § 44101(b)
3 BILLING CODE 4910-13-P Dept. of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, p. 6
4 14 C.F.R. § 48.100
5 14 C.F.R. § 48.15
6 14 C.F.R. § 48.30
7 14 C.F.R. § 48.5(b)
8 49 U.S.C. § 46301(a)(1)
9 18 U.S.C. § 3571; 49 U.S.C. § 46306
10 14 C.F.R. § 48.110
11 System of Records Notice should consult docket No. DOT-OST-2015-0235
12 14 C.F.R. §§ 48.100, 48.105