On December 14, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced new federal rules that will require all present and future operators of small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to register their drones beginning December 21, 2015. With hundreds of thousands of UAS, or drones, expected to find their way into homes across the United States this holiday season, the new rules are a clear response to recent accounts of drones losing control, flying in restricted airspace or obstructing emergency response teams.

The Secretary of the Department of Transportation and the FAA Administrator have recently affirmed that all unmanned aircraft, including model aircraft, are aircraft consistent with congressional discretion in Title III, Subtitle B of Public Law 112-95 and the existing definition of aircraft in title 49 of the United States Code (49 U.S.C. 40102). In accordance with this change, registration is now required prior to operation under 49 U.S.C. 44101(a) and as further prescribed in 14 CFR part 47. The FAA believes these changes to be a necessary response to the 1.6 million UAS estimated to be sold in 2015 and the additional 1.9 million in sales of UAS expected in 2016. The popularity of drones is also reflected in the increase in reports of unauthorized and potentially unsafe UAS operations, rising from 238 in 2014 to 1,133 in 2015.

Under the new rules, owners of drones weighing between half a pound and 55 pounds will have to register with the FAA at faa.gov/uas/registration. As of December 21, 2015, owners of drones will be asked to provide their names and home and email addresses. Registration will require a $5 fee — although the fee is waived for the first 30 days to encourage participation. Registrants will receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will include a unique identification number that users will be required to place on any drone they own. Users will also have to carry their registration certificates when piloting a drone. Current drone operators have until February 19, 2016, to register and anyone acquiring a drone after December 21, 2015, will have to register before their first flight.

Failure to comply with the rules could result in criminal penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment and/or fines of up to $250,000, or civil penalties up to $27,500. This new registration system is currently meant for hobbyists and recreational use, though it will be enhanced to support registration for other uses, such as in connection with a business, in spring 2016.

While it is unclear how the FAA will enforce registration, the agency has made clear that it will be working with manufacturers, retailers and hobby groups to spread the information to end-users. The FAA believes that these new rules will help educate new and current users about federal airspace rules, their responsibilities and their potential accountability in case of an accident.

Drone manufacturers would be wise to include relevant information regarding registration with their products’ packaging from this point forward to ensure their customers are adequately informed of their potential liability in case of an accident. Furthermore, commercial drone operators need to prepare for and be cognizant of the upcoming mandatory registration of drones used for commercial purposes, along with keeping up to date on the constantly evolving legal landscape of drone use.