Online sign-ups start December 21 for hobbyists, March 31 for non-recreational drones

As the final day of Hanukkah arrived and Santa’s Christmas Eve trek loomed just ten days ahead, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) complicated the lives of those of us who have given, or plan to give, their nearest and dearest this year’s Hot Item: drones. As of December 21, all drones – or, as the FAA and industry know them, “unmanned aircraft systems” or UAS – will have to be registered. (And talk about a Christmas morning buzzkill: UAS that have never been flown prior to December 21 cannot be flown outdoors until they have been registered – but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

The decision to require registration shouldn’t surprise anybody. As we reported, the FAA had already announced its intention to impose some such requirement. It had even appointed a special Task Force to make recommendations. Now the FAA has moved ahead with a registration system that tracks prominent aspects of the Task Force’s proposals.

The essential elements of the new registration system include:

All small UAS (a/k/a sUAS) – i.e., any UAS that weighs less than 55 pounds at take-off – must be registered. The only exceptions: sUAS that either (a) weigh less than 0.55 pound at take-off (including everything on board the sUAS) or (b) are U.S. military craft.

The registration process is web-based. Anyone planning to use an sUAS strictly for recreational purposes will need to provide only his/her name, physical and mailing addresses, and an email address. Those who will be using their sUAS for non-recreational purposes will have to cough up the same information, plus the aircraft manufacturer and model name and the serial number (if available). (Would-be sUAS pilots younger than 13 will have to have a parent or guardian register for them.)

There is a registration fee, payable during the online registration process using most major credit or debit cards. Folks seeking registration of one or more “model” sUAS – i.e., craft to be used strictly for recreational purposes – will pay a total of $5.00, which will cover all sUAS each registrant may operate. Registration of non-“model” sUAS – i.e., craft to be used for commercial purposes – will have to pay $5.00 for each sUAS being registered. And here’s a tip for the economically-minded: to encourage everybody to register sooner rather than later, the FAA has announced that it is waiving the initial registration fee between December 21, 2015-January 20, 2016.

Once the registration process has been completed, the applicant will be issued a Certificate of Aircraft Registration which will be good for three years. The Certificate for non-recreational sUAS will apply only to the craft described in the application; for hobbyist sUAS folks, the Certificate will authorize operation of all sUAS owned and operated by the applicant. The Certificate will include the registrant’s name, an FAA-issued registration number and the serial number of the sUAS if the registrant has provided that number during registration. The registrant should be sure to have the Certificate on hand and available for inspection every time the registered sUAS is in operation.

The registration number must be “affixed” to the sUAS in a readily accessible, readable and legible manner. “Ready accessibility” means that it must be visible without the need to use any tools to get at it – so, for example, the number could be inscribed in a battery compartment, as long as that compartment can be opened without tools.

The registration requirement is technically effective as of December 21, 2015 … but it’s not that simple. If you have a currently unregistered sUAS that you’ve flown, purely for recreational purposes, prior to December 21, you’ve got until February 19, 2016 to complete the registration process, and you can keep flying it in the meantime. If you’ve got a model sUAS (again, purely recreational) that has not flown prior to December 21, you must register before flying it outdoors. (Yes, that means that that way cool octocopter with the super HD camera that’s sitting under the tree on Christmas morning will have to stay in the box until you get it registered – unless, of course, the thoughtful person who gave it to you was kind enough to register you in advance.)

Those of you who have one or more sUAS that you have flown or plan to fly for non-recreational purposes – e.g., in connection with some commercial undertaking – will be stuck with the current “exemption” process until March 31, 2016, at which point you’ll be able to utilize the new streamlined, online registration process. (Since the current exemption process takes several months, if you haven’t already started that process, it may be best to cool your jets until March 31, since the new registration process promises to be simple and fast.)

The FAA expects compliance, and is prepared to bring down the hammer on violators: civil penalties for failure to register can run up to $27,500, and criminal penalties could go as high as $250,000 (plus up to three years in jail). The FAA has not indicated precisely how it will calculate penalties in any particular circumstances, but at those numbers, it would be a good idea to get registered so that you don’t have to find out the hard way.

The good news here is that, for folks interested in using sUAS for non-recreational purposes, a simple, streamlined registration process is in sight (although still a few months off). That universe of potential pilots includes broadcasters and other newsgatherers wishing to take advantage of the opportunities that sUAS provide for excellent video coverage of events. The FAA’s regulatory approach has in recent years been less than encouraging on that front. The new registration process will at least make one aspect of beginning commercial operations easier to accomplish.

The FAA, at Congress’s direction, is trying hard to get a handle on the increasingly widespread, and increasingly dangerous, operation of drones in the national airspace. Its job is dramatically complicated by the fact that there are so many sUAS already in operation, with holiday-related sales estimated to add several hundred thousand more by year’s end. The FAA is playing catch-up ball. Whether its new registration system will solve its problems remains to be seen.

Check back here for updates on the UAS front.