The New Rules for Drones: What You Need to Know
BY Alan Perlman5 December 2015
By: Lance Ulanoff
If your drone weighs more than half a pound, get ready to register it.
In a move that has garnered both support and strong criticism from people inside and outside the process, the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee (say that five times fast) revealed its final report and essentially boiled down the complex question of which drones need to be registered to weight.
Put simply, toy drones weighing less than 250 grams (8.8 ounces) get a pass and everything heavier than that (up to 55 pounds) will, if this proposal becomes an actual law, have to register with the FAA.
The task force, which delivered its report to the FAA on Nov. 21, spent roughly a month considering how to handle the proliferation of consumer drones. Committee members included many people from within and affiliated with the drone industry. Among them were representatives from Parrot, DJI, GoPro, 3D Robotics, and Amazon Retail.
In a statement released after the report was made public on November 23, DJI wrote, “The result … reflects weeks of respectful dialog, genuine compromise, and a balancing of interests among the participants. While several aspects of the report might be of concern to one group or another, and remain so to DJI, we believe in the reasonable approach to accountability that is reflected in the package of recommendations sent to the Administrator.”
Another participant, The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), was considerably less supportive of the result. Its executive director, Dave Mathewson, released a statement:
“As a member of the task force, AMA agrees that registration of UAS makes sense at some level and for flyers operating outside the guidance of a community-based organization or flying for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, as written, these recommendations would make the registration process an unnecessary and unjustified burden to our 185,000 members, who have operated harmoniously within the aviation community for decades and who register and provide their personal contact information when joining the AMA. For this reason, AMA wanted to include dissenting comments in the final task force report, but was prevented from doing so.”
While drone fliers have increasingly joined the AMA ranks, most of its members still fly traditional remote-control model airplanes, and already follow their own sets of rules and guidelines. The craft AMA members fly often resemble real airplanes, are controlled almost entirely from the ground and require some expertise to pilot.
Drones, by contrast, can often hover on their own and be programmed to fly from one place to another. The AMA considers many of them toys that “do not present safety concerns.” The AMA also wanted the task force to consider factors beyond weight when requiring registration, including, “capability and other safety-related characteristics.”
AMA members, by the way, already register their crafts with the association and follow a fairly strict set of guidelines and usually fly in specified areas also known as aerodromes.
The Task Force settled on weight as the sole determining factor for registration and used a collection of complex formulas to determine the minimum weight for a drone that could pose some risk to human life.
“An object with a kinetic energy level of 80 Joules (or approximately 59 foot-pounds) has a 30% probability of being lethal when striking a person in the head…. Solving for mass and velocity, this equates to an object weighing 250 grams traveling at a terminal velocity of 25 meters/second or approximately 57 miles per hour.”
The final calculations also factor in flight over densely populated areas, even though it is already illegal to fly drones in these locations (think a busy New York City avenue).
Regardless of how the task force arrived at its registration benchmark, a minimum weight of 250 grams still puts virtually all of DJI’s popular Phantom drones and both Parrot’s Bebop (400 grams) and AR.Drone 2.0 (380 grams) on the registration list. Palm-size drones should be exempt.
Parrot, though, is on board with the task force recommendations and sent Mashable this statement from company CEO Henri Seydoux:
“Parrot specializes in affordable, fun, lightweight drones (under 1 pound) that are easy to pilot via a smartphone or tablet. We believe the new FAA regulations will be helpful in providing consumers clear rules and guidelines to safely enjoy toy drones, including the Parrot AR.Drone, Parrot Bebop and Bebop2 (Parrot Minidrones being under 225 g). And we will develop a solution enabling Parrot drone users to easily register on the FAA website via our FreeFlight piloting app. As a consumer drone pioneer, we view this step as a necessary and positive milestone in the continued growth of the consumer drone industry.”
You’re Getting a Registration for Christmas
If the proposal becomes an FAA rule, here’s some of the things you should know.
Registration Will be Electronic
The committee recommended the minimum requirements for registration: Just your name and street address. They will include the option to add email and phone number.
Target Won’t Do It
You can’t register at a retail store or online (A.K.A. Point of Sale) when you buy a drone.
Give Me Your Digits
Registration numbers can be arbitrarily assigned by the registration system or drone owners can choose to use the serial number on their drone.
The registration number must be on the drone. That’s why the drone’s serial number might be your best option. Otherwise, you can add it as a label somewhere on the drone. The task force will accept hidden areas like a battery compartment, as long as they remain accessible.
It’s an Analog Process
There won’t be any special RFID tag to add to your drone. Nor will the FAA use GPS (since many of these larger drones include it) for tracking registered drones. Instead, registrants will get a digital certificate. They can also request one be mailed to them.
Produce It on Request
If you go flying, you’ll have to have the registration on you. That means you’ll want the document on your phone or as a printout in your back pocket.
The task force wants registration to be free. That’s why they don’t plan on mailing anyone a physical record of the drone registration. There is a chance, though, that FAA rules may require some minimal registration fee. In that case, the task force recommended $0.001.
Big Kids Only
Drone registrants have to be at least 13 years old. Since some of the drone flyers will be younger than that, a parent or guardian can complete the registration.
Not a U.S. citizen or resident? No problem. You’ll still be able to register your new drone.
It’ll Cost You
Flying without registration could result in a fine. Similarly, a registered drone found flying in restricted areas could also result in a fine. It’s unclear how — without registration — anyone would track down an errant drone’s owner.
Fines Could Be Crazy
Since there’s no fine schedule for consumer drones, the FAA might have to rely on existing statutes that have fines exceeding $25,000. The task force is recommending the development of a “reasonable and proportionate penalty schedule that is distinct from those relating to traditional manned aviation.”
It’s Not Official… Yet
This is still just a recommendation. The FAA could adopt it ASAP or focus in on some of the dissent and ask for adjustments, like some measure for registration beyond weight. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, though, said in a statement: “I will work with my team at the FAA to review their recommendations, as well as public comments we received, as we present the recommendations to Secretary Foxx. We will work quickly and flexibly to move toward the next steps for registration.”
There Are Still Rules
Even without drone registration, there’s already a long list of rules for flying drones or small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS).