Announcing a registration system is in the works for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, the federal government has essentially concluded the risks from these low-flying aircraft are so immediate and substantial that regulators do not have time to prepare comprehensive safety regulations.

In the joint statement by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation, officials said a task force consisting of representatives from the industry, government, and others has been formed, and will have until November 20 to recommend a registration system. The initiative has been fast-tracked because regulators want to have the system in place before Christmas (December 25), when sales of UAS are expected to peak. Besides new owners, the registration system also would extend retroactively to those who purchased robotic aircraft within the past few years.

“Registering unmanned aircraft will help build a culture of accountability and responsibility, especially with new users who have no experience operating in the U.S. aviation system,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “It will help protect public safety in the air and on the ground.”

In addition to snarling air traffic, “nuisance” drones across the country have interfered with firefighters, flown into tall buildings, and crashed into bystanders on the ground, according to The Washington Post. Criminals have used them to smuggle contraband into prisons. Some property owners have become so irritated by drones buzzing overhead that they have opened fire on them with shotguns. At a recent congressional hearing, Representative Peter A. DeFazio (D-Or.) recalled an incident in his state where residents reported that a “peeping Tom” drone had been peering in their windows.

Unlike recreational UAS users, who are largely unregulated, users that operate a UAS for commercial purposes are banned from flying their devices unless they obtain an authorization exemption from the FAA. This ban on commercial UAS operations will continue until the FAA can finalize new safety rules — a step the Post said will take at least another year. The registration system will affect both types of users, recreational and commercial. The good news for commercial UAS operators is that the task force will explore options to improve the current exemption process with a streamlined system that would make registration less burdensome.
 
The new system also will carry as-yet-unspecified monetary penalties for anyone who violates the requirements. The penalties for unregistered UAS devices likely will be separate from the FAA’s current enforcement actions against unauthorized or reckless operations of UAS devices.

FAA has already taken enforcement action against UAS operators who violate the agency’s prohibition on commercial operations, operate UAS devices in a careless or reckless manner, or fly a UAS device above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport without advance permission. In October, the agency proposed its largest penalty by far, $1.9 million, against a Chicago-based aerial photography company for conducting 65 unauthorized flights of UAS over populated cities and in congested airspace. A total of 43 of these flights were within controlled airspace surrounding the New York metropolitan area.

Jackson Lewis’ Workplace Safety and Health professionals caution that it is vital for businesses and employers who want to enter the UAS marketplace to understand that:

  • Operating a UAS for commercial purposes is illegal unless the operator (company, sole proprietor, and so on) obtains a written exemption from the FAA.
  • All UAS pilots are prohibited from flying a UAS in a reckless or unsafe manner.
  • Employers may be vicariously liable for employees operating a UAS in a reckless or unsafe manner.