Private drones must be registered with the federal government and owners will have to pay a $5 “drone tax” under rules Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx released Monday, as officials belatedly try to bring accountability to the Wild West in the sky.
With the number of drones burgeoning, and with more frequent reports of dangerous or privacy-testing run-ins, the federal government said it was time to subject owners to higher standards of responsibility if they want to fly unmanned aircraft in airspace that the government has the right to regulate.
Every unmanned aircraft over 250 grams — including traditional model airplanes that meet the standards — will have to be registered and must display the registration number on it somewhere so authorities can track down the owner if the drone gets lost or gets into trouble. Owners are required to have registration papers on them at all times while flying their drones.
“A registration requirement encourages a culture of accountability and responsibility,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a memo defending the rules. “Much like registering a motor vehicle, registering a drone ties a specific person to a specific aircraft. Greater accountability will help protect innovation, which is in danger of being undermined by reckless behavior.”
The administration was rushing to implement the regulations before Christmas, while an estimated hundreds of thousands of drones were wrapped and waiting for owners.
Before operating their drones, owners must go online to register any aircraft. Owners of drones already bought and used as of Dec. 21 will have a 60-day grace period to register.
All owners also will have to pay a $5 registration fee — a move that industry groups decried. The Consumer Technology Association labeled it the “drone tax” and predicted it could hurt ownership and may keep some hobbyists from complying with the law.
Mr. Foxx, however, said the $5 fee was intentional. It’s the same cost as registering any other aircraft, including a massive Boeing 787. The point, he said, is to underscore to drone owners that they are flying aircraft, which carries a heavy responsibility.
“The device you’ve purchased is more than a toy — it’s an aircraft, and it must be flown with the same respect to safety as any other aircraft operating in our national airspace,” he said in a blog posting announcing the move.
The $5 fee will be waived for the first 30 days to encourage current owners to comply, but registration must be renewed every three years.
The FAA said some 800,000 new drones will be used during the last three months of this year, and nearly 2 million more model aircraft will be sold.
With growth like that, the government is eager to try to set rules. Still to come are final guidelines on small aircraft use.
Industry groups hope the federal government will bring order to what they say is a chaotic patchwork of state and local laws governing unmanned aircraft systems.
“Putting the rule in place will provide the necessary tools and training to create a culture of safety that will help deter careless and reckless behavior,” said Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Reports of “potentially unsafe” drones have increased dramatically this year, from 26 in January to a peak of 193 in August, the FAA said in its official findings backing up the rules. Some are being flown at high altitudes in airspace where passenger aircraft fly, while in several cases forest fires spread as drones forced firefighters to ground their aircraft out of concern for safety.
In one case out of Pasadena, California, in September, a 24-year-old man lost control of his drone. When it crashed to the ground, pieces cut and bruised the head of an 11-month-old girl in a stroller.
The registration rule applies to drones that weigh more than 250 grams but less than 55 pounds. Heavier drones already have to use a paper-based registration process, and the government calculated that those under 250 grams were too light to do much damage. Indeed, the government estimated that less than 1 person would be killed for every 20 million hours of flight time.
Toy balloons, Frisbees, paper airplanes and kites are exempt, even if they do weigh enough to qualify, because they aren’t connected to operator controls, the agency said. Drones exclusively flown indoors are also exempt because the FAA doesn’t have control over that airspace.
For now, the online registration system is only for private hobbyists and not for business use. Noncitizens aren’t able to use the online system yet, the FAA said.
The minimum age to register is 13, and anyone younger than that is required to have someone of age complete the registration. Even though there is no minimum age requirement for drone operators, federal guidelines restrict what sort of information can be gathered online about those younger than 13. The government had to insist on an older person being responsible for the drone in order to not run afoul of its own privacy rules.