U.S. Transportation Department Plans National Drone Registry

 - October 19, 2015, 3:05 PM
The CyPhy Works LVL 1 drone for consumers features six rotors and a forward-facing camera. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Seeking to create “a culture of accountability and responsibility” among people who fly drones as a hobby or for recreation, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to establish a national registry to track drone ownership. The department has appointed a task force to develop the registration process, with instructions to deliver its recommendations by November 20. The DOT’s goal is to have rules in place by mid-December.

The federal government’s push to register still-unspecified types of small unmanned aircraft responds to a surge of reported drone sightings near major airports and by the pilots of manned aircraft. In August, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that pilot reports of seeing unmanned aircraft had nearly tripled, from 238 in all of 2014, to 650 in the first seven months of the year.

In parallel with the planned national registry of recreational drone users, the FAA is developing a regulation for the commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft that it expects will be approved within the federal government and released by next June. In the meantime, it has approved some 2,000 exemptions for commercial drone operations as allowed by a provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

“Registration will reinforce the need for unmanned aircraft users, including consumers and hobbyists, to operate their drones safely,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who announced the registration effort on October 19. “Second, registration will help us enforce the rules against those who operate unsafely, by allowing the FAA to identify the operators of unmanned aircraft. We can take enforcement action as necessary to protect the airspace for everyone.”

The task force will consist of 25 to 30 representatives from government and industry, according to the DOT. It will advise the department “on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to low safety risk, including toys and certain other small UAS,” or unmanned aircraft systems. Another recommendation the DOT expects from the group pertains to people who already own drones. “We would expect retroactive registration. There may be a grace period; the task force will have to come up with those solutions,” Foxx said.

Another provision of the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation protects drone and model-aircraft enthusiasts from regulation, stating that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft” that is flown “strictly for hobby or recreational use.” However, the provision does require that such aircraft be “operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft.” Given the mandate from Congress, Foxx was asked if the DOT has legal authority to require drone purchasers to register their machines. “We’re not requiring licensure of the operators; they’re not required to get a license to operate,” he said. “But when it comes to registration, this is a safety authority the FAA has and it’s one that we’re exercising.”

Joining Foxx in making the announcement at DOT headquarters in Washington, D.C., were FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, FAA associate administrator for Aviation Safety Peggy Gilligan and representatives of the Air Line Pilots Association, the American Association of Airport Executives, Helicopter Association International, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the Small UAV Coalition, the Consumer Electronics Association and aerial data acquisition company PrecisionHawk.

Statements supporting the registration effort came from some of those organizations as well as from Congress. “Today’s announcement is good news for safety and for responsible UAS owners,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House aviation subcommittee. “However, the committee needs to make sure that registration is secure, available to the FAA to use for enforcement purposes, and a straightforward process for UAS users,” he added.