Feds announce drone registration requirements

Greg Nash

The Obama administration announced new requirements on Monday for drone users to pay a fee and register with the federal government. 

The Department of Transportation (DOT) said drone users will have to register their devices by Feb. 19, 2016, in a new Web-based tracking system that is being set up, beginning on Dec. 21. The agency is imposing a $5 fee for drone registrations over the objections of drone advocates, but the FAA said it is waiving the charge for the first 30 days of the new requirement. 

Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxDC Metro lags on federal safety actions Republican lawmakers sound the alarm over Cuba flights Feds seek new rules to mitigate oil train derailments MORE said Monday that the registration system for drones is necessary because of an increase in the number of pilots who have reported sightings of the devices during flights.

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“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” Foxx said in a statement. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been in the process of developing rules for commercial drones, but the new registration rules will also apply to recreational devices.

Drone advocates had urged the FAA not to impose registration fees in the new documentation system that is being set up to help the federal government keep track of the devices, arguing that the charge would deter drone operators from complying with the new requirements. 

"To be successful, an efficient drone registration system with widespread compliance must be simple, easy and free," the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Technology Association said last week. 

"Even a small fee — essentially a drone tax — could undermine the FAA's objective of widespread compliance and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's goal of associating a drone with an owner as often as possible," the group continued. 

The FAA said Monday that the $5 fee is "nominal," however. 

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said his agency is launching the registration system for drones ahead of the holiday season because sales of the devices are expected to be brisk this year. 

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” Huerta said. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.” 

Drone advocates said they are willing to accept the registration system for the devices because the FAA gave them a chance to help craft the requirements.
 
"Under the FAA’s proposed small UAS rule released earlier this year, commercial operators would be required to register their platforms," Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International President Brian Wynne said in a statement. 
 
"Extending this requirement to consumer UAS operators will help promote responsibility and safety," he continued.  
 
Recreational drone users, who have bristled at the FAA's methods of tracking close calls with airplanes, said the registration rules are going to be too burdensome for hobbyists who are using drones for noncommercial purposes, however.  
 
"As a member of the task force that helped develop recommendations for this rule, AMA argued that registration makes sense at some level and for UAS flyers operating outside the guidance of a community-based organization or flying for commercial purposes," Academy of Model Aeronautics Executive Director Dave Mathewson said in a statement. 
 
"Unfortunately, the new rule is counter to Congress’s intent in the Special Rule for Model Aircraft and makes the registration process an unnecessary burden for our more than 185,000 members who have been operating safely for decades," Mathewson continued.