On December 14, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) introduced a new web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small unmanned aircraft (“UAS”), also known as “drones.”  The new registration process applies to UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (about 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras.

The announcement caps a rulemaking process that started in 2012 when Congress mandated through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-95) that the U.S. Department of Transportation, in consultation with other government partners and industry stakeholders, develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil UAS in the National Airspace System (“NAS”).  In announcing the new registration rule and process, the FAA noted that the new regulatory requirements will help the FAA ensure that UAS operators are aware of the system in which they are operating and provides the FAA a means to identify and track a UAS to its operator.

Under the new rule, any owner of a small UAS who previously has operated a UAS exclusively as a model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015, must register no later than February 19, 2016.  Owners of any other UAS purchased for use as a model aircraft after December 21, 2015 must register before the first flight outdoors.  “We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”

Owners may use either the paper-based process or the new web-based system.  Owners using the new web-based system must be at least 13 years old to register.  The registration is valid for three years.  The normal registration fee is $5, but in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to register quickly, the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days (from December 21, 2015 to January 20, 2016). 

The online registration system does not yet support registration of small UAS used for any purpose other than hobby or recreation – such as using a UAS in connection with a business, like professional photography.  The FAA said it is developing enhancements that will allow such online registrations by spring of 2016.  Until then, non-recreational and non-hobby users may only utilize UAS in connection with their businesses if they have been granted a Section 333 exemption from the FAA and the UAS is operated by a licensed commercial pilot.

The FAA’s announcement caps a busy two years in the area of UAS regulation.  In November 2013, the FAA promulgated regulations requiring drone test site operators to have privacy policies in place and to comply with such privacy policies.  In November 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) reversed an earlier decision by an NTSB Administrative Law Judge and held that UAS are properly considered “aircraft” and subject to FAA regulations that prohibit operation of “an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”  See Michael P. Huerta, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration v. Raphael Pirker, NTSB Order No. EA-5730, Docket CP-217 (Nov. 18, 2014).  In February 2015, the President issued a memorandum listing specific policies that federal agencies are to employ in the government’s use of UAS, covering such areas as privacy protections, civil rights and civil liberties protections, accountability, transparency and reports.  In March 2015, The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to force the FAA to conduct a rulemaking process for drone-related privacy issues.  And, in May 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued guidance regarding DOJ’s domestic use of UAS.