New Registration Requirements for Small Drone Hobbyists

This week provided another development in the evolving world of drone regulation. The FAA published an Interim Final Rule1 requiring that owners of small drones (between 0.55 and 55 pounds including payloads such as on-board cameras) being used for recreational purposes must be registered with the FAA using “a streamlined and user-friendly” website:

Registration is mandatory prior to operation (rather than at the point of sale); is owner-based (as opposed to individual registration of each drone a person owns); and requires submission of the owner’s name, home and e-mail addresses. As part of the registration process, all drones will be provided and are required to display a unique identification number.

Under the new Rule, any owner of a small recreational drone owned prior to December 21, 2015 must register no later than February 19, 2016. Hobbyists who purchase drones after December 21 must register before the drone’s first flight outdoors. Registration will cost $5, but there will be a 30-day grace period from December 21, 2015 to January 20, 2016 when registration is free.

The Rule is in furtherance of the FAA’s position that drones, even the smallest of drones used for recreational purposes, are “aircraft” and therefore subject to the Federal Aviation Regulations found in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Thus, the FAA views the web-based registration process as an exemption from the more onerous aircraft registration process set forth in Part 47 of Title 14 (the Section 333 Exemption process), which remains applicable to commercial drone operations.

Failure to register a drone pursuant to the new Rule can result in a civil penalty of up to $27,500, as well as potential criminal penalties.

Although it remains to be seen how the FAA will implement enforcement of the new registration scheme for recreational drones, the FAA has stated that it will continue to monitor and, when appropriate, fine drone users for violating Federal Aviation Regulations. One recent example in the commercial drone context is a $1.9 million civil penalty issued by the FAA against SkyPan International for unauthorized commercial photography drone operations.

With an estimated 1.5 million drones sold in 2015, including approximately 800,000 of those expected to be sold this holiday season, the Congressional mandate pursuant to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 for the Department of Transportation to hasten the integration of drones in civilian airspace is becoming increasingly pressing. Additionally, as the use of drones has increased, “reports of unauthorized and potentially unsafe [drone] operations have escalated at an increasing rate.”2 Although some drone enthusiasts have questioned the reliability of the FAA’s reports of unsafe drone operations, the FAA is certainly attempting to establish accountability and responsibility by drone operators through the new registration Rule.

1 Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft, 80 Fed. Reg. 78593 (December 16, 2015) (to be codified at 14 C.F.R. Part 48).

2 Id.