TECH
10/19/2015 10:23 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2015

Get Ready To Stand In Line At The Department of Drone Vehicles

The feds announced a plan to require recreational drone operators to register their devices with the government.
The plan is to have a national drone registry in place by Christmas.
Brendon Thorne/Getty Images
The plan is to have a national drone registry in place by Christmas.

If you operate a drone, Uncle Sam wants to know your name. The Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration announced a speedy new plan to require all drones to be registered by their operators, whether they're used for commercial, media, research, aid or recreational purposes.

Monday's news from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta follows an increase in reports of near-misses involving drones around airports and of interference with public safety workers.

It also sets an aggressive schedule: The plan is to have the registry in place by the holidays, when the FCC expects over 1 million drones to be sold.

Originally, the registry was part of a notice of proposed rule-making that was published in the Federal Register this spring. Those rules are still on track to be finalized by June of next year. 

In Monday's press conference, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx compared the drone registry to regulation of off-road vehicles. "It may be OK to operate an off-road vehicle without registering it if you are using it on your own property," he said. "But if you intend to take it onto local streets or the highway, you are expected to register it and operate it safely to protect the public." 

The new plan clarifies that unmanned aircraft, like manned aircraft, must be registered with the federal government. Foxx said this is "essential to ensuring accountability and is an important part of our ongoing vigilance," as it will help the government enforce safety rules by identifying the operators who break them.

Public officials and other experts suggested that Monday's announcement was driven by the rising number of civilian drone interactions with commercial aviation and with local government agencies responding to emergencies -- in California, Texas and New York, among other states. 

One such example occurred in Wimberley, Texas, where drones were used in searches related to Memorial Day flooding. Gene Robinson, the owner of Texas-based drone manufacturer RP Flight Systems, which works with law enforcement and emergency response agencies, said there were also "a lot of people out flying in our area, in temporary flight restriction zones, that were not authorized. That's a problem if you need to bring in a Lifeline helicopter or a plane to dump water. You just can't have that."

Demby said that "drone protocol 1" was to "defer to manned aircraft no matter what, to the point of ditching the craft. Unfortunately, a lot of people who are not educated in operations of emergency flights and first responders don't understand this."

Drones are also interfering with first responders on the ground -- as seen in this video, in which a fire department uses its hose to get a drone to back away from a burning residence in New York (about the 12-minute mark).

As more people buy and use drones, the incidence of drone sightings and close encounters appears to be growing.

"A lot of people don't recognize that they're not just buying a toy," said Lisa Ellman, co-chair of the unmanned aircraft systems practice at the international law firm Hogan Lovells. "It is very hard to enforce law if you don't know who is flying. It is not OK to fly if you are recklessly endangering the public." 

The planned national registry will likely hit some turbulence before Christmas. Drone operators, members of the fast-growing drone industry and legal advocates will surely raise concerns about feasibility, privacy and civil liberties. Foxx said a task force of government regulators and industry stakeholders is being established to work out the details.

It will need to figure out which drones truly are toys and which ones need to be registered. It will have to determine how to create the registry: Since people can build drones at home, requiring registration at the point of sale won't be enough.

Online communities like DIYDrones.com and improvements in 3D printers have rapidly advanced the ability of hundreds of thousands of people to build their own drones, instead of buying them off the shelf.

"The only way to regulate this is to regulate the parts," said E.J. Duarte, the owner of Thurst UAV, a small drone manufacturer. But even then, he suggested, "It's almost impossible. Tons of people are building the [mother]boards at their houses."

The feds also plan to require retroactive registration by people who already have drones. 

Meanwhile, the FAA and the Transportation Department have received more than 4,500 public comments on the broader rule-making, which they are reading through, Foxx said. The plan is to issue a final version of those rules in June 2016. He noted that he had already signed off on roughly 2,000 exemptions for some commercial operations.

The proposed rules will not require a license for drone operators, but besides registering the drone, operators will have to pay for and take a knowledge test to receive a certificate, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, and obey some basic operating limitations, including adhering to national no-fly zones.  

The federal government does not always issue rules in a timely fashion. But Ellman, who previously served in the White House Office of Management and Budget between 2011 and 2013, expects this regulatory process to move along quickly because the perceived need is so strong.

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