AIN Blog: Here Come the Drone Police

 - October 20, 2015, 5:05 PM

The U.S. government is rushing into place new regulations that are going to require registration of drones or small unmanned aircraft systems or whatever you choose to call them.

We don't know yet what these regulations are going to look like, but the government says it needs to create these rules incredibly quickly, because of an urgent safety issue, namely the recent FAA release of drone sightings, a tiny number of which were actually something to worry about. A government/industry task force is supposed to devise the new proposed rules by November 20.

The idea that a new set of regulations is being forced down the public’s throat in panicky haste should be an immediate red flag. Will there be time for the public to comment on the new rules? Will any dissenting voices or supportive voices with a better idea be heard? Or will it be fait accompli, here's the rule, like it or lump it?

There must be something good about this plan from the Department of Transportation (DOT), because alphabet group after alphabet group has released a statement declaring its support, from Airlines for America to the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

Essentially, registering your drone with the FAA/DOT will make it possible to track the drone owner in cases of illegal drone flying. There have been cases of drones flying near firefighting activities, crossing paths with airliners and crashing out of control into public arenas and even people. When the applicable drone is in custody, presumably some kind of serial number will provide authorities the means to trace the owner and then prosecute for whatever rule violation applies. 

But there is more to this, and I’m surprised there have been few dissenting voices following the DOT’s announcement on October 19. 

First, can you even begin to imagine the nightmare of confusion that will attend the registration process? The FAA can barely handle something as simple as aircraft registration records, and now it is going to stand up a process to register hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of hobby aircraft? 

Second, this is a federal government program. Lying to the federal government is a felony and could result in years of jail and a hefty fine. Make a mistake on your registration form, or try to get around the registration process at the store where you make the purchase by inputting false information would be a serious crime. In addition to the penalties for illegal drone flying itself, do we want to create this new opportunity for the government to prosecute people?

Third, and perhaps most important, drone registration is aerial camera platform registration. Yes, that’s right. The government instantly gains the ability to regulate and prosecute photographic activity. And this raises some questions: how big a drone will be affected by these rules? Even some of the smallest hobby drones carry a camera. And does this registration process give the government the right to take your photos and videos as part of a prosecution? 

The other photography-related question: where does the slippery slope start with regard to photography? Maybe the government will decide that it likes having regulated access to drone photography and will next extend a rule to cover all cameras, so that you have to register your DSLR camera purchase in case you use the camera for illicit purposes. (Never mind that our smartphones are essentially registered by virtue of their connections to the Internet and cellphone networks.)

There are other questions. What about drone sales between individuals? Will these be subject to registration? What about home-made drones? Will there be a new experimental/amateur-built drone category? What happens when a drone crashes and is unrepairable, will there be a deregistration process? And how exactly would this work? Bring the wreckage to your local FSDO? Don’t make me laugh. FSDOs don’t even want to meet with pilots and mechanics, never mind the general public. 

Some of these questions may sound stupid, but truly, we are rushing headlong into something without thinking it through. 

This is the same government department that can't write a rule that makes sense in fewer than five years, but now it's going to enact this new registration rule in months, presumably before the Christmas rush when hundreds of thousands of new drones are expected to flood the skies. 

This is a terrible idea. There is no data about risk to support these new rules. If the aviation industry and government are so hell-bent on enacting new regulations, let them go through the normal rulemaking process. This is not an emergency, and vast new government powers are not the answer to this supposed problem.