Much of the attention of the FAA’s recently promulgated Interim Federal Rule (“IFR”) 80 FR 78593, has focused on the FAA’s requirement that all unmanned aircraft (commonly referred to as “drones”) be registered with the federal government.  Lost amongst the media’s coverage on the effect the new rule will have on recreational unmanned aircraft users, are the benefits that the new rule may offer operators utilizing unmanned aircraft for non-recreational purposes pursuant to exemption under Section 333 of Public Law 112-95.

Consistent with the FAA’s recent affirmation that all unmanned aircraft, including model aircraft, are “aircraft’ as defined in title 49 of the United States Code, all unmanned aircraft must be registered prior to operation in accordance with 49 U.S.C 44101(a) and 14 CFR part 47.  See80 FR 63912, 63913 (October 22, 2015). Currently, the only registration and aircraft identification process available to comply with the statutory aircraft registration requirement is the paper-based registration system set forth in 14 CFR parts 45 and 47.  The FAA’s recently promulgated provision, which took effect on December 21, 2015, seeks to provide an alternative streamlined and simple, web-based aircraft registration process for the registration of small unmanned aircraft, to facilitate compliance with the statutory requirement that all aircraft register prior to operation.  The web-based registration option is available only to small unmanned aircraft owners.  To qualify as a small unmanned aircraft, the unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds.  Unmanned aircraft weighing 55 pounds or more must continue to use the current paper based registration system provided for in CFR part 47. 

Pursuant to the new rule, any small unmanned aircraft operated exclusively as a model aircraft (i.e., for hobby and recreational purposes in accordance with the requirements of section 336 of Pub. L. 112-95) prior to December 21, 2015, must be registered no later than February 19, 2016.  All other small unmanned aircraft intended to be used exclusively as model aircraft must be registered prior to the first operation outdoors. Thus, any small unmanned aircraft purchased, received as a gift, or otherwise acquired on or after December 21, 2015, and intended to be used exclusively as a model aircraft must be registered prior to operation.

Significantly, in the new rule, the FAA acknowledges the growing number of petitions for exemption to operate unmanned aircraft for non-hobby and/or non-recreational purposes under Section 333 of Public Law 112-95.  (For a more detailed discussion of the exemption for operation of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes, please see our prior aviation blog post.)To accommodate the expected increase in unmanned aircraft being operated for non-recreational purposes under Section 333, the web-based registration system established by the final rule will be capable of receiving Certificates of Aircraft Registration for small unmanned aircraft operating pursuant to an exemption for non-hobby or non-recreational use issued under Section 333 of Public Law 112-95.  Therefore, beginning on March 31, 2016, small unmanned aircraft operating pursuant to an exemption may use the web-based registration process established in new part 48 as opposed to the paper based registration requirements in part 47.  If the new web-based registration system operates as advertised, this should alleviate the fairly onerous registration requirements of part 47, thus saving operators of unmanned aircraft for non-recreational purposes significant time and expense.