Yesterday, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a new plan that will require registration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, for both commercial and hobbyist use. While commercial UAS operators are currently required to register their UAS with the FAA, hobbyist operators are currently exempt from registration requirements.

The announcement, which was made by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at a press conference yesterday, follows in the wake of the FAA’s record breaking $1.9 million proposed civil penalty against SkyPan International, Inc. for illegal UAS flights, and a recent surge in news events involving careless operators misusing drones (see here and here).

“The United States Department of Transportation is bullish about technology and transportation. The rate of change driven by technology in other sectors in our lives has now reached the transportation sector and it requires this agency to be agile enough to adapt and integrate innovation into our national transportation system”, Secretary Foxx stated.

Secretary Foxx staked out an ambitious timeline for the registration taskforce, stating that he expects to complete taskforce recommendations by mid-November, with the goal of having final registration rules in place by mid-December. “The details of this new registration system will be developed by a task force consisting of government leaders and a diverse group of stakeholders who will work on a tight deadline to get this work done.”

“Registration of all aircraft, including, unmanned aircraft, is an important part of ensuring accountability”, said Foxx. According to Foxx, the registration rule is aimed at achieving two goals. First, registration will help educate new operators on the rules before they fly. Second, the registration requirement will allow the FAA to identify and take necessary enforcement actions against unsafe operators.

Recent incidents involving close-encounters between UAS and manned aircraft illustrate the difficulty in taking enforcement actions against operators that cannot be identified. In theory, UAS registration should provide the FAA with the ability to track down UAS operators who are violating FAA rules. However many questions remain and challenges to implementation and enforcement of a registration requirement may be fierce.

As a threshold matter, it is unclear where the resources will come from to facilitate and manage a registration system, and whether UAS manufacturers and operators, most of which are small businesses, will be required to pay for the costs of establishing a new registration system.

The registration plan announced yesterday also did not address specific questions regarding which UAS, in terms of weight, size, and operational capabilities, will need to be registered. Nor did the announcement address issues raised by users and operators who build their own UAS from component parts.

It is also unclear, what affect, if any, current legislation that limits the FAA’s authority to enact rules for model aircraft flown for hobby or recreational use, will have on the FAA’s ability to require registration for non-commercial, hobbyist UAS. Depending on how the registration requirement is implemented and to whom it applies, the authority of FAA to enact rules targeting hobbyist use of model aircraft may face legal challenges.

While the ability to identify and take appropriate action against UAS operators who violate FAA rules and fly in an unsafe or reckless manner is absolutely critical to ensuring the safety of our skies, it is important for the rules to be implemented in a way that achieves the desired results without needlessly impeding innovation.

Yesterday’s announcement set out a broad framework for UAS registration, but was light on details. Figuring out the details is always the messy work. We encourage continued FAA efforts to establish small UAS rules that help ensure the safety of all National Airspace System users, while allowing for the continued innovation and growth of the UAS industry.