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UPDATED: FAA's drone regulations: Answers to common questions

The FAA is in the process of developing regulations and safety guidelines for drones and other UAVs, and TechRepublic is tracking its progress. Here's what you need to know.

Image: iStockphotos/Hans Engbers

With an estimated 400,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) expected to be purchased during the 2015 holiday season, the Federal Aviation Administration has been scrambling to come up with regulations to ensure the safety in the airwaves. Commercial drones are currently subject to regulations, but on October 19, the FAA announced that they will also be coming up with guidelines for the registration of non-commercial drones.

That means that many of the drones consumers are buying will likely need to be registered with the FAA soon.

On November 20, a task force delivered a report to the FAA with recommendations for registering drones. In a statement about the task force recommendations, FAA administrator Michael Huerta thanked the team for "excellent and expeditious work" and announced that they will "work quickly and flexibly to move toward the next steps for registration."

This naturally brings up lots of questions. TechRepublic recently learned further information on drone registration from Tom Gemmell, co-lead of Husch Blackwell's Unmanned Aircraft Systems team, and former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and Gulf War veteran. Here are some of the answers about drone registration, based on what we know so far.

What kind of drones are included?

The new regulations apply to small (under 55 pound), independently-owned, recreational drones. The registration is intended to prevent rogue drones from causing accidents in a crowded airspace and to promote education about how to fly drones safely.

Who is on this task force?

The FAA created a 25-member task force, by invite-only, which includes companies like Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, 3D Robotics, and others. The group met between November 3-5 to come up with a list of recommendations for a free, streamlined registration process. According to the FAA website, topics discussed included: "how an operator might prove a UAS [the FAA's term for a UAV] is registered, how the aircraft would be marked, and how to use the registration process to encourage or require UAS operators to become educated on basic safety rules. The group also continues to gather data and analyze which types of UAS would need to be registered and which would not." The task force worked with the FAA, DOT, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, Office of Management and Budget, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of State to develop their guidelines.

What is the mission of the task force?

The 25-member task force was charged to consider:

1) Registration of small UAS
2) Decide which aircrafts could earn exemption
3) Streamline the process for commercial registration of drones

Task force's proposal

The proposal, which hasn't been made publicly available, included:

1) Registering UAS online, via web portal, with operator's name and address
2) All operators should receive a universal registration number
3) The serial number must be marked on the drone

Again, these are for drones under 55 pounds, and apply only to UAS operated outdoors.

What about privacy issues?

While federal law prohibits photographing or collecting data without permission, it's important to note that the FAA is hands-off when it comes to rules surrounding drones and privacy. However, when it comes to personal privacy laws in light of drone surveillance, 26 states have enacted laws, 6 states have adopted resolutions, 45 states have considered 156 bills, and 19 states have passed legislation.

Current state-specific regulations when it comes to privacy

  • In North Carolina, there is a ban against surveilling a person, dwelling, or private property, or taking photo of a person for public dissemination without consent.
  • In Florida, you can't observe a person "with clarity to obtain information about identity, habits, conduct, movements, without consent," which does not apply to mapping, agriculture, utility inspections.
  • New Hampshire prevents operators from disturbing wild animals to prevent "lawful taking"--in other words, hunting. And also states that you can't film someone legally hunting without prior consent.
  • In Michigan, you can't operate a drone to affect animal or fish behavior in order to hinder or prevent lawful taking.
  • In Georgia, you can't operate a drone within five miles of the Capital.

Registration for small drones now underway

On December 14, the FAA announced the final rules for drone registration, which they call a "streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process" incorporating many of the task force's recommendations.

Registration, which will require owners to supply name, address, and email address, began on December 21, 2015, just in time to apply to drones purchased as gifts over the holidays. Every recreational owner (must be a US citizen, 13-years-old and up) of a small UAS (between .55 and 55 pounds), purchased before December 21, 2015, is required to register their drone no later than February 19, 2016. Those who buy drones after December 21 are required to register before they launch the UAV. Registration certificates, which are valid for three years, will be free until January 20, 2016--after that, it will cost $5. A single owner with multiple UAVs need only apply once, and will receive the same identification number for all of his or her drones, which must be applied and visible to each one. For answers to FAQs, check the FAA's website.

*This article has been updated as of Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Check back to this TechRepublic article for for continuing coverage on drone regulations.

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