US DOT drone registration plan draws mixed reactions

By Patrick C. Miller | October 22, 2015

A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) plan to require the registration of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by mid-December is drawing approval and criticism from the UAS community.

Speaking at a news conference Monday morning, Anthony Foxx, DOT secretary, and Michael Huerta, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator, announced the formation of a task force to develop recommendations for a UAS registration process. The task force is to deliver its recommendations by Nov. 20. Foxx said he expects the new regulations to be in place by the middle of December.

Citing a significant increase in the number of encounters between manned and unmanned aircraft, Foxx said, “We are going to require all operators of drones to register their aircraft—just like commercial drone operators do currently.”

While UAS approved for commercial use under FAA Section 333 exemptions are registered, it has not been the case for operators of recreational drones or hobbyists. This would change under the DOT plan.

In a recent blog, Florida attorney Jonathan Rupprecht outlined the problems he foresees with mandatory drone registration and explains the FAA’s N-number registration process. He also questioned whether the FAA has authority to require someone to register a drone before it flies.

“I understand that once the drone leaves the store, comes out of the box, goes out of the house, and then gets a smidge off the ground, then the FAA can argue jurisdiction, but how can it argue jurisdiction anywhere before?” he writes.

UAS attorney James Mackler with the Nashville law firm Frost Brown Todd LLC said that while he welcomed the idea of drone registration, the timetable doesn’t appear realistic and the process appears rushed and not well thought out. He said the news conference with Foxx and Huerta following the announcement provided vague answers in response to specific questions about law enforcement and the regulatory process.

“I’m not opposed to everyone who owns a drone over three pounds having to register it if you set up an intelligent registration system online,” he said. “I think it is a good idea, but to try to do it before December is just going to create a mess.”

Michael Singer, CEO of Detroit-based Drone View Technologies, attempted to sell the FAA on a system the company developed to electronically register UAS. But he was told by the agency the system was unworkable because it would require difficult changes to the FAA’s N-number registration process for manned aircraft, which Singer describes as “a very manual, labor-intensive, bureaucratic process” with weeks of lag time for approval.

“I applaud the FAA for being proactive and for trying to bring some sense of safe and responsible operation to the marketplace,” Singer said. “I just think the devil will be in the details to get the benefit they talk about. If they’re going to rely on the N-number process, they need to alter it.”

Douglas Wood, a partner with the ReedSmith law firm in New York and editor of a white paper on UAS technology titled “Crowded Skies: Opportunities and Challenges in an Era of Drones,” expressed disappointment in the task force composition.

“The panel that they put together doesn’t have anybody from the user community. They don’t have anybody from motion pictures, from marketers, from hobbyists—the people who actually use drones,” he said. “If they’re going to regulate, you’d think they’d put somebody on there from the user community, but they didn’t, which is typical Washington.”

Mackler believes rushing to adopt new regulations before the Christmas buying season will result in an overlapping, contradictory framework while subjecting UAS operators to unknown federal penalties—potentially felonies with jail time and stiff fines.

“It’s just going to add to the level of confusion and lack of respect for what the FAA’s trying to do,” he said.

Singer agreed and said, “Unless you think through how you’re actually going to implement this broad idea, I think it will fall short of the desired results.”

Mackler, who’s also an experienced criminal defense attorney, said that creating new penalties in a haphazard manner can have the opposite effect than intended because it undermines respect for the law and regulations if people view them as unfair, unreasonable or unenforceable.

“It tends to increase violations because people don’t respect the law and they don’t comply with it,” he explained. “I’m worried that if they rush into this and try to shoe-horn this registration system into the current system where it’s subject to jail time, people are going to be even more confused and things are going to be even less safe.”

Wood believes the proposed regulations are driven by a panicked response to the predicted increase in the recreational use of drones that’s not supported by factual evidence.

“It’s going to create a lot of paperwork and a lot of bureaucracy over something that—as of yet—hasn’t had any incidents that seem to warrant this kind of overkill in this approach,” he said.

While allowing that incidents of UAS operating near the White House do raise legitimate concerns about their use by terrorists, he added that those who intend to use drones for such purposes aren’t going to register them.

“If you really think that you’re going to catch the bad guys who might use drones illegally through this registration process, we’ve seen in many contexts of registering anything used in a crime as a silly exercise,” Wood noted. “Whether you call it a panic or call it an overreaction, it seems like an awful lot of overkill.”

Calling the DOT’s proposed registration process a step in the right direction, Singer pointed out that it doesn’t associate the person flying the UAS with the person who owns it. He recommended that not only should the registration process be online and user friendly, but also offer a carrot that induces people into compliance.

“I try to associate the responsibility to the pilot in command—associating something that uniquely identifies them back to the particular equipment to geo-reference their location,” he explained. “With that particular triangulation, you start to drive real benefits to many different stakeholders.”

Organization’s present at the news conference supporting the DOT plan for mandatory UAS registration included the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the Air Line Pilots Association International, the American Association of Airport Executives, the Helicopter Association International, PrecisionHawk and Airmap.


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