dji inspire

With an increasing number of hobbyist drones in the air — and scores more predicted to be showing up this holiday season — the Department of Transportation (DOT) is fast-tracking the creation of a registry system for all our small flying rigs by the end of the year.

Formally announced on Monday, the agency aims to create a consumer drone-registry ruleset that will take effect before batches of newly gifted quadcopters take flight, assembling a task force that will be in charge of determining the program specifics and how to get it in place by the planned implementation date of November 20th. Among other aspects, the FAA-administered task force will determine what constitutes a drone that needs to be registered and how to enforce a retroactive-registration requirement.

That’s right — those DJI Phantom and Parrot AR drones you bought your father-in-law for his birthday last year may now need to get registered for further operation, along with anything you purchase or build from this point forward.

Task Force

The FAA hasn’t yet made the full 25-35 member list public, but so far two companies have broadcast their acceptance into the program: 3D Robotics and DJI. These two makers of largely consumer-focused quadcopters both stand to be impacted greatly with the federal registry requirement. DJI will be represented by its VP of policy and legal affairs, Brendan Schulman — a recent addition to their team and one of the foremost legal experts on drone matters. 3D Robotics didn’t announce their representative’s name. (Update: 3DR contacted Make: to clarify that they’ll be repped on the task force by their general counsel, Nancy Egan.)

As for the others on the task force, the FAA tells Make: they’ll release more information soon. Meanwhile, the agency was joined at its announcement of the program by a number of other companies and groups that are prominent in the drone and R/C arena, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see some or all of them as official members of the task force. Those listed were:

  • The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International
  • Academy of Model Aircraft
  • Air Line Pilots Association
  • American Association of Airport Executives
  • Helicopter Association International
  • PrecisionHawk
  • AirMap/Small UAV Coalition
  • Consumer Electronics Association

In-Air Collision Concerns

The program comes from a growing concern about mid-air incidents between the small R/C craft and full-size airplanes. “We have seen a significant increase this year in pilot reports of UAS sightings,” explains FAA spokesperson Les Dorr about the program’s surprising urgency. “On average this year, we are receiving more than 100 reports per month of possible UAS encounters. Registration will help us educate operators on the rules of the airspace and more easily identify bad actors.”

A DOT press release from Monday’s announcement indicates that the agency will be making considerations on the requirements for registration. (The FAA operates as part of the DOT.) “The group will advise the Department on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk, including toys and certain other small UAS. The task force also will explore options for a streamlined system that would make registration less burdensome for commercial UAS operators.”

Dorr further explained in a follow-up that the task force will be looking at performance characteristics such as power and weight, and will also be considering how to handle homemade drones.

With a deadline for recommendations less than a month away, and hopes to get them implemented by the end of the year, the task force’s work is cut out for it. Dorr states, “Given the urgency of this issue, the Department of Transportation and FAA will move expeditiously to implement the Task Force’s recommendations.”

DIY Considerations

The speed of the program raises questions, including concerns about DIY builds.

“I think the Maker community will want to watch closely how distinctions are being made between what drones would and would not be required to be registered,” says DJI’s Schulman. “There might be a distinction based on weight, for example, which would make a lot of sense to me. Because people who build their own drones are often swapping parts and components during the building and testing process, there is a key question of when in that process you would register a drone project.”

“How many drone components can be replaced before you need to register a new drone?” he wonders.

Schulman also expressed surprise at the overall plan to push this through by the holidays, stating the “FAA is in the middle of a rulemaking process that took the better part of a decade.”

(Schulman and I recently discussed the legal landscape of drone flying and the increase in near-miss reports at World Maker Faire New York.)

University of Washington legal professor Ryan Calo, who focuses on drones and robotics, sent Make: a list of his concerns about the uncertainty of the proposal, which include concerns of what data is collected and how it is shared. He also explains the weight threshold will make a big difference — a Phantom weighs just over two and half pounds, while a powerful DJI Inspire 1 is nearly five pounds heavier. And he suggests an alternative to the registry, “simply an RFID license plate requirement so that investigators can trace the drone back to a purchaser or Maker, like a cat.”

Dorr says that these alternatives will be up to the task force.

Jesse Kallman, the Director of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs of drone software provider Airware, and the AUVSI’s Silicon Valley chapter president, feels good about the initiative. “Overall I think it’s a great move by the DOT,” he writes to Make:. “This will help make people aware of what they should and should not do as well as providing a mechanism to those posing a risk to be held accountable. This move towards increased registration along with the FAA ramping up enforcement towards reckless operators will do a lot to ensure safety within our national airspace.”

Major Penalties

And the agencies are taking it very seriously, with severe consequences to anyone who fails to register. The New York Times states that an FAA spokesperson tells them, “Anyone who fails to register a drone could face civil fines up to $27,500 and, if warranted, criminal penalties up to $250,000 or up to three years in jail, or both.”

Those who want to participate in proposing rules will be able to comment — the FAA invites companies, individuals, and organizations who wish to contribute but were not selected for the Task Force to submit comments to the public docket. But you’ll have to do it fast — the 15 day window is already underway.

We’ll be watching this develop.