The Federal Aviation Administration released two somewhat conflicting messages at CES: A lot of people have already registered their drones, but that statistic isn’t the most important part of the story.
“We’re very encouraged by the numbers so far,” said FAA administrator Michael Huerta at a press conference here on Wednesday. As of 6 a.m. PDT Wednesday, 181,061 people had registered drones at the agency’s self-service site.
Huerta commended drone manufacturers for working quickly with the FAA — the registration site went up only 60 days after the start of its rule-making process — and offering constructive suggestions to ease registering unmanned aerial vehicles.
Huerta emphasized that registration isn’t about punishment or revenue (the FAA, which by law can’t allow free aircraft registration, charges $5 per registration) so much as education. “It provides us a key opportunity to teach about safety to a new generation of airspace users,” he said, adding later that “It will also help them become part of the safety culture that has become deeply embedded in commercial aviation.”
Huerta made a point of not calling people flying drones “operators” or “users”: “When they fly outside, they become pilots.”
At the press conference, Huerta was joined by policy makers and executives with companies building or operating drones: Consumer Technology Association’s tech-policy vice president Doug Johnson; Dave Vos, project lead for Google X’s Project Wing; 3D Robotics general counsel Nancy Egan; and Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president for policy and legal affairs.
“We’re on the cusp of democratizing the airspace,” Vos said. “In order to do this, a tremendous amount of responsibility must be built.”
“The public-private partnership worked,” Egan said. Shulman agreed: “The registration framework is unquestionably better as a result of industry participation,” Shulman said.
For example, industry representatives pushed for instant online registration that would cover every drone owned by a person instead of requiring one registration on paper for each aircraft. They also got the FAA to allow drone operators — er, pilots — to place a drone’s registration number inside the vehicle instead of on the outside, an option that will allow drone users some anonymity (unless they actually crash the thing into somebody’s backyard).
Manufacturers and retailers are also working to streamline the registration process further. CTA’s Johnson said the Arlington, Virginia, trade group is working with manufacturers to standardize serial numbers, while Huerta said the FAA will let drone-piloting apps do instant registration by scanning a code on the drone.
At the same time, 181,061 people is a lot less than the 400,000 drone sales CTA estimated for the holiday season, much less the 1 million the association projects for this year.
Drone manufacturers, for their part, continue to worry about privacy and the FAA’s geographic restrictions and emphasized that drones are making the world safer overall.
“A blanket geographical limitation on flight is the wrong approach,” DJI’s Schulman said. He mentioned that DJI’s apps allow users to fly drones in areas subject to FAA warnings if they verify their account and choose to unlock the default restriction: “What we can do is put in place something that creates a decisional moment.”
“Despite the alarmist headlines from 2015… the technology story from my point of view is a net gain in public safety,” he said, noting the use of consumer drones to detect emergencies. “Quite often, it has been a recreational drone user who has been in a position to help.”
Some manufacturers are responding to the FAA mandate by opting out of it in the one way possible. The rule exempts drones weighing under .55 pounds, and at a press event Skyrocket Toys emphasized that all of its upcoming line of drones will fall below that line with a sticker: “No FAA Registration Required!”