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A Reasonable First Step For Drone Regulations

unmanned quadcopter in flight
photo by Richard Unten

Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as UAVs or drones, are quickly becoming a fixture in American life.

According to CNN Money, consumers are expected to buy about 400,000 drones this holiday season. Individuals are putting the devices to use for landscape design, property monitoring or just hobbyist aerial photography. But the increasing number of drones in the hands of private individuals has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to action.

The FAA announced last week that the Department of Transportation is establishing a Web-based registration process for drone owners. Anyone who owns one or more drones weighing over 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds will be required to register using the new system or by mail. Existing drone owners were given until February 19 to comply, but effective yesterday, newly purchased UAVs must now be registered before the device’s first flight.

Registration costs $5 per operator, and covers multiple devices for three years. To encourage participation, the FAA will refund the initial registration fee for anyone who signs up prior to January 20.

This registration requirement is very reasonable. Moreover, it arrived surprisingly fast for an FAA decision; the rules came together in just two months. The speed of the process reflects the growing importance of drones and their potential applications in American life. But while the outcome is a positive one, the FAA should not stop here.

There is nothing unreasonable in asking drone operators, whether recreational or commercial, to register themselves and their aircraft. (The FAA is working on commercial operator rules, at Congress’ request, but does not anticipate that they will be finalized until next year.) Recreational users will receive a unique registration number, which they will mark on all their aircraft prior to flight. Should they sell or give away the drone, they will remove the number and the new user will affix his or her own.

Whether the FAA has the power to force recreational users to register their aircraft is a question that will ultimately be sorted out in court or by Congress. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, a hobbyist group, has expressed disappointment over the registration process and has already challenged the FAA’s decision to classify small drones as aircraft. That litigation is still pending, and it is possible someone will challenge the registration requirement in the meantime.

For most hobbyists, however, paying $5 and affixing a number to their devices is not a major burden. The real test of the FAA’s reach will come if and when the agency tries to impose minimum standards of proficiency and responsibility on the people who operate drones.

Should a drone operator be required to own an aviation chart and to demonstrate that he or she can read it? If not, how can the agency protect both the terrestrial and airborne public from potential hazards if a drone wanders into restricted airspace? A drone flying across a manned aircraft’s path while the aircraft is approaching or departing an airport could easily get somebody killed. So could a drone that, perhaps for news or commercial photography purposes, intrudes on the airspace above a presidential motorcade or swearing-in ceremony.

The concerns are not purely theoretical. According to a report from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, there have been 921 near-collisions between drones and manned aircraft in the past two years. In 51 of these cases, the drone came within 50 feet of the manned aircraft, forcing the pilot to maneuver to avoid it. Earlier this year, a drone crashed near the White House, and another crashed into a seating area at the U.S. Open. These incidents, while not catastrophic themselves, demonstrate that reckless or inexperienced operators can cause real damage.

Recreational drones are private property, and as such the government should avoid undue restrictions on their use. Their potential benefits are manifold, as I have written before. But the airspace above our heads is public property. We all expect to be able to walk in safety without worrying about machinery falling from the sky. This is why we have strict standards for everything involved in aviation, particularly for the aviators who operate the equipment.

Those standards currently do not apply for drones. Not all of them should; it isn’t necessary to make a hobbyist drone operator demonstrate the proficiency of, say, a commercial pilot. But some level of knowledge, skill and responsibility should be required for anyone who operates an aircraft, manned or otherwise, beyond the space of his or her own backyard. It is both a matter of safety and of good sense.

The new registration rule is a step in that direction. Now the question is what will follow.

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