On December 14, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its interim final rule (IFR) governing the registration of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), or drones, which becomes effective next Monday - December 21, 2015. The IFR creates a web-based registration process for drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds, including payloads such as on-board cameras - this encompasses nearly all available drones other than extremely small micro drones or the military platforms patrolling borders and hunting terrorists. In short, if you are in the market for a drone (perhaps some last-minute shopping for the holidays), or already have one, assume the new rule applies to you. You won’t be alone - according to the FAA, nearly 800,000 sUAS will likely be sold during the final quarter of 2015, with an additional 1.9 million sold to recreational users in 2016. The FAA further anticipates that more than 600,000 sUAS will be sold for commercial use in 2016.  

These new rules follow from the recommendations issued by the Unmanned Aircraft System Registration Task Force appointed by the FAA in October in an effort to address this massive influx of drones into the National Airspace System. But, to be clear, these are not the long-awaited operational rules, these are just for registration - so that the FAA can try to keep track of what is out there, educate new users, and find users … if needed. Thus, if you want to fly commercially, you will still need separate approval from the FAA to do so (e.g., a Section 333 exemption), in addition to complying with the new registration requirements. 

Of note, the FAA has established different registration requirements for recreational and commercial sUAS operators. The following highlights the key differences: 

Recreational Operators

  • For those sUAS purchased and operated prior to December 21, 2015, the operator must register the sUAS prior to February 19, 2016. Registration requires payment of a US$5 fee for initial registration and for each subsequent renewal. Registration is good for three years, and can be renewed through the same web-based process.
  • Starting December 21, 2015, any newly purchased sUAS must be registered before the sUAS can be operated.
  • Recreational operators need not register each sUAS they own and operate.  Rather, the IFR calls for the FAA to issue a single Certificate of Aircraft Registration and registration number to an operator, and the operator may use that same registration number for each of the sUAS he or she operates.  
  • Upon registration, the operator must provide his or her name, physical address (and mailing address if different) and email address.

Commercial Operators

  • Commercial operators will not be able to access the new registration process until March 31, 2016. Until that time, commercial operators will need to continue to comply with the traditional paper registration system provided for under 14 CFR 47.  
  • Commercial operators are required to register each sUAS they intend to operate, and pay the US$5 fee for each registration. As with recreational users, registration is good for three years.  
  • Commercial operators that are not individuals, i.e., corporations, partnerships, LLC’s, etc., must identify an authorized representative for purposes of the sUAS registration. The operator must provide the name, physical address (and mailing address if different) and email address of the authorized representative. If the commercial operator is an individual, he or she must provide the same information for him or herself.
  • In addition to contact information, commercial operators must also provide the name of the sUAS manufacturer, the model name and serial number of the sUAS, if available.  

Upon completion of the registration process, the FAA will issue a Certificate of Aircraft Registration in electronic form, which must be kept readily available so it can be presented to local, state or federal law enforcement if requested. The FAA’s commentary suggests that having the Certificate available in paper form or in a legible electronic form on a smartphone will suffice. If any of the required registration information changes during the registration period, or if the aircraft registration requires cancellation for any reason, the holder of the Certificate of Aircraft Registration is required to update its registration information within 14 days of the change.  

In addition to the foregoing registration requirements, the IFR also establishes marking requirements for sUAS. Each sUAS must display a unique identifier, which for now will be the registration number provided by the FAA. The FAA is continuing to assess the potential to use sUAS serial numbers for identification purposes, and the IFR leaves the door open to allow the FAA to do so at a later time. There is significant flexibility in the way that the identification number is displayed. The only mandate is that it be legible, affixed in such a way that it will remain affixed for the duration of each operation, and be readily accessible and visible upon inspection of the sUAS.  

The FAA’s stated goal in enacting the IFR is to allow the FAA a direct and immediate opportunity to educate owners who are new to aviation and the requirements for operating in the National Airspace System, as well as to allow the FAA and law enforcement agencies to address non-compliance by providing the means by which to identify an owner and operator. Only time will tell if the new registration system will effectuate those broader goals, but at a minimum the new system should ease the registration process for commercial operators once it becomes available to them in the spring of 2016.