On October 22, 2015, the Department of Transportation and the FAA created a task force to propose a process and rules for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) registration. sUAS are commonly referred to as drones, though they potentially include the less intuitively threatening model aircraft familiar to many childhoods. The Task Force issued its report on November 21.
Congress currently requires that all aircraft be registered with the FAA prior to operation, and has confirmed that UAS are covered by this requirement (see Pub. L. 112-59, §§ 331(8), 336). This Task Force was not determining whether sUAS would need to register—though it did decide certain sUAS should be excluded from the requirements—but how. The Task Force considered only sUAS under 55 pounds, as commercial and larger drones are already regulated.
The Task Force issued three recommendations, which corresponded with its three assigned objectives. According to the recommendations, user should be able to
1) Fill out an electronic registration form through the web or through an application (app).
2) Immediately receive an electronic certificate of registration and a personal universal registration number for use on all sUAS owned by that person.
3) Mark the registration number (or registered serial number) on all applicable sUAS prior to their operation in the NAS [National Airspace System].
The Task Force acknowledged the simplicity of these recommendations and argued that this simplicity is what allowed developed consensus and, furthermore, will ensure actual adoption and compliance. More burdensome registration steps might “jeopardize the likelihood of widespread adoption,” the Task Force observed.
The Task Force proposed a system where drone operators must go online and provide their names and street addresses to the FAA; provision of an email address, telephone number, and drone serial number would be optional. The system should allow for “multiple entry points” to maximize flexibility; for example, sUAS manufacturers or trade organizations should be able to develop applications to submit information and register on behalf of members. The Task Force rejected point-of-sale registration as inconsistent with the statutory requirement that a person may only operate — not buy — an aircraft when it is registered with the FAA.
The registration applies to the drone operator and the resulting registration certificate would be valid for all sUAS owned by the registered individual. Notably, the report does not address whether owner registration satisfies the statutory requirement for aircraft registration. Under the proposed system, operators would receive a certificate—generally in electronic form—to confirm registration, and are then required to produce the certificate when operating a sUAS. Additionally, operators would be required to mark each sUAS with their registration number, unless the operator had elected to provide the FAA with the aircraft serial number.
The Task Force also recommended registration include an “education component” and that registration either be free or $0.01 in the event the FAA statutorily obligated to charge a fee. Individuals must be over 13 years of age to register, with younger operators required to register through their parents.
sUAS weighing 250 grams or less would not be subject to the registration requirements, because such requirement would not further safety and accountability goals. The 250g limit is based on calculations that indicate the probability of a catastrophic event between a sUAS and a person on the ground was somewhere between the risk level of commercial air transport and the risk level of general aviation. Therefore, the Task Force concluded that 250g sUAS “seem[ed] to present a reasonably acceptable risk level,” and regulation below this weight limit was unnecessary. The Task Force did not provide calculations or risk probabilities for sUAS of other masses.
The report does suggest internal disagreement regarding this threshold number. Some Task Force members advocate that all sUAS be registered, while others support a higher base exemption. In other venues, privacy advocates have noted the intrusive surveillance potential of drones, and have advocated that registration require more information—including phone numbers and drone surveillance capabilities—in order to better protect privacy. Advocates for a higher weight minimum focused on safety considerations, noting that the 250g limit captured sUAS generally regarded to be toys and was much lower than other countries who set 1 or 2 kilogram minimums. Furthermore, those critics noted that the weight determination incorrectly operations over “relatively densely packed urban” areas—already forbidden—and ignored data on bird strikes that would support a higher weight threshold.
The Task Force also recommended that the FAA “establish a clear and proportional penalty framework,” noting that the current penalty regime—which provides for fines potentially exceeding $25,000—was originally designed to deter drug trafficking and tax evasion but might now apply to hobbyists and “juveniles.”
In conclusion, the report noted a “spirit of cooperation and compromise” that pervaded the process and ultimate recommendations, encouraging the FAA to consider the report in a holistic sense. Notably, this report is only recommendations, and the FAA maintains final authority to propose and implement rules.