The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that nearly 800,000 small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, will be sold this holiday season, and expects sales of an additional 1.9 million UAS to hobbyist and recreational users in 2016. Over the past year we have witnessed a surge in news events involving careless operators misusing drones, including crashes at stadium sporting events and hundreds of incidents involving close-encounters between UAS and manned aircraft.
In response to these recent news reports, the Department of Transportation (DOT) created a registration task force charged with making recommendations to the FAA about mandatory registration of small UAS, including those used for recreational or hobby use. On November 23, the Task Force released the final recommendations report. This week, the FAA released a 211-page interim final rule on UAS registration (registration rule) that incorporates some of the Task Force’s recommendations – and becomes effective next week.
Notably, the registration rule requires a US$5 fee for the initial registration application and for each subsequent renewal. This deviates from the Task Force recommendations, which had suggested that registration be free or cost 1/10th of one cent. The FAA rejected this recommendation on grounds that the FAA was statutorily required to charge a registration fee to recover the cost of providing registration services, which the FAA predicted to cost US$56 million through 2020.
Consistent with the Task Force recommendations, the rule creates an alternative web-based UAS registration system that is designed to be simpler and more streamlined than the FAA’s existing paper-based aircraft registration system, and applies to all UAS weighing more than 250 grams (.55 pounds) and less than 55 pounds.
The registration rule includes different requirements for hobbyist and commercial UAS operators. Below is a break-down of the key registration requirements for hobbyist vs. commercial UAS operators:
- Starting next Monday, December 21, 2015, hobbyist operators will have access to a new online UAS registration system, which can be accessed here.
- All newly purchased UAS weighing more than 250 grams (.55 pounds) and less than 55 pounds must be registered using either the new online system or the FAA’s existing paper-based registration system before the UAS can be operated outdoors.
- UAS within that weight range purchased prior to December 21, 2015, must be registered by February 19, 2016.
- Hobbyists are required to submit basic contact information, such as name, address, and email address. It will cost US$5 to register hobbyist owner’s entire fleet of UAS.The FAA will issue a single Certificate of Aircraft Registration with one registration number that can be used for, and should be put on, each such UAS.There will be no fee for the registration of UAS through the online system before January 20, 2016.
- Hobbyists are required to pay US$5 to re-register the UAS every three years.
- While only U.S. citizens are permitted to register UAS, the FAA will issue non-U.S. citizens a certificate recognizing ownership of the UAS that will allow non-U.S. citizens to operate UAS as a hobbyist.
- Commercial operators of small UAS in this weight range will be able to use the new online registration system beginning on March 31, 2016. Until that time, commercial operators must use the existing paper-based registration system.
- Commercial operators are required to register each individual UAS (unlike hobbyists) and pay a US$5 registration fee for each application. Registration lasts three years, and there is a US$5 renewal fee for each renewal. These fees are the same as those currently required under the paper-based registration system.
- Commercial operators are required to provide UAS-specific information in addition to basic contact information. The owner will receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration with a registration number for each individual UAS registered.
- Although each UAS must be assigned a unique registration number, commercial operators will be given a single online profile that allows them to manage the registration application process for each UAS.
- While there is a U.S. citizenship requirement for registration, as is the case for manned aircraft, UAS owned by non-U.S. citizen corporations qualify for registration so long as the corporation is organized and doing business under the laws of the U.S. or a State, and the UAS is “based and primarily used in” the U.S. The FAA has strict guidelines for meeting the “based and primarily used in” test.
- There is no requirement to re-register UAS that have already been registered under the existing system. Operators may continue using the existing registration system or, alternatively, switch over to the new registration system when the registration is renewed.
What do you think about the new registration requirements? This registration rule was issued as an “interim final rule,” which means that the FAA is still accepting comments. The interim final rule will likely be published in the Federal Register within the next day or two, and comments are due within 30 days of publication. Whether you are a UAS manufacturer, operator, or user, the comment period offers all industry stakeholders an opportunity to shape UAS regulation and policy.