The problem of irresponsible drone use in the United States has become so bad that the federal government is taking action with uncharacteristic dispatch.
In a news conference at Department of Transportation (DOT) headquarters on Oct. 19, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said that a task force made up of government officials and stakeholder representatives would have a set of recommendations ready by Nov. 20. Those recommendations, which will include requirements for drone registration, would go into effect mid-December 2015.
While the rules still haven’t been finalized, Foxx said that the goal of the registration requirement is to allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to identify the owners and operators of unmanned aircraft in the U.S. airspace.
He said that the government isn’t required to request Congress to pass new laws to make the regulations effective, which will allow for a quick turnaround on the task force’s work. Instead, he said that the agency will use the power it already has to regulate safety in aviation.
A large group of organizations have signed on with the DOT and the FAA to help move the registration rules forward, including representatives from drone manufacturers, model aircraft groups and commercial airlines.
The next steps include deciding which types of unmanned aircraft will fall under the requirement of a drone that must be registered, how those registrations will be recorded and how they will be connected to specific drones.
Currently, the FAA is prohibited from creating new rules that would require operators of unmanned aircraft to be licensed if they’re used for recreation, although the agency is now requiring that operators of commercial drones hold pilot’s licenses.
“Registering unmanned aircraft will help build a culture of accountability and responsibility, especially with new users who have no experience operating in the U.S. aviation system,” Foxx said in his prepared remarks at the beginning of the press conference. “It will help protect public safety in the air and on the ground.”
However, in his answers to members of the media, Foxx did say that regulators have had trouble tying the drones that are causing problems to the people that are operating them. He also noted that actually finding the drones wasn’t a major problem since there are almost always photos or videos of the drone incursions.
Foxx’s comment would seem to indicate that one of the registration requirements would be to require some sort of visible registration number on the outside of the unmanned aircraft.
Currently, all civilian manned aircraft are required to display what’s called an “N-number” on the sides and wings of a fixed wing aircraft, or just on the sides of an aircraft without wings (such as a helicopter).
FAA to Impose Drone Registration Rules by End of 2015
This registration number is a public record, and you can search for the owner of any aircraft just by searching the FAA database for that number.
If you search for the number N493UA, for example, you’ll find an Airbus A320 owned by United Airlines. However, all aircraft, including those owned by private individuals as well as civil aircraft owned by the government, display those registration numbers. Military aircraft also display identification numbers, usually called tail numbers.
While it would be impossible to display registration numbers in the sizes required for manned aircraft, drones and model aircraft do have sufficient space on their exterior surfaces to display visible numbers.
According to Foxx, the DOT is still deciding whether to make the contents of the unmanned aircraft database publically available. However, a public database seems likely, if only because other government registration and license identification data is already public. In addition to the aircraft database, the Federal Communication Commission requires radio station licensees to make their license numbers and registration information public, for example.
One reason that the registration requirement can be put into place so quickly is that the Department of Transportation already has the charter in place to regulate aircraft backed by federal law as well as a law-enforcement structure in place.
This means that once the requirement for the registration of drones and model airplanes is in place, the FAA can start levying fines for failing to register or for irresponsible operation.
But, of course, placing a registration requirement on drone operators and enforcing compliance with that requirement are two different things. Considering the lack of responsibility shown by drone operators that fly near airports or otherwise endanger the public, it’s hard to believe that they will go out of their way to register their drones.
While the government has the ability to go after unregistered drones, there are already a million of those devices flying in the U.S. Catching them all will take some time.
With the new registration requirement, federal regulators have the ability to track down owners of drones that are registered. Equally important they now have the legal structure in place to go after drones that aren’t registered, and they have a way to go after people who violate federal laws by operating drones illegally.
This means, among other things, that there is a new requirement for anyone who hires a drone operator to perform aerial photo missions. You will have to obtain the drone operator’s registration information so you can sort out those who are operating legally versus those who aren’t.