It’s all the drone world can talk about: The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that all drones—not just those used for commercial purposes—would soon have to be registered, with the hope of providing a way to link badly behaved drones to their pilots. The new system, FAA representatives (optimistically) said, is hoped to be in placed by mid-December, to anticipate the hordes of underage children and overconfident dads expected to get drones for Christmas. There are lots of potential problems with this plan, which other experts have admirably described. But I want to focus on one particular obstacle. What should the FAA do about registering DIY drones—the flying objects that people make in their garages, instead of running out and buying?
Consumer-level drones are new to most Americans. But the drone craze really began with garage-dwelling hobbyists—much like the birth of personal computing. While it’s now possible to simply purchase a high-quality drone that works right out of the box, the drone community still has a huge contingent of ardent DIY drone builders, ranging from engineering-minded middle-schoolers to hot-blooded competitive racers to retirees with a tinkering bent. Although it’s difficult to count how many DIY drone builders are out there, former Wired editor Chris Anderson’s DIY Drones site has been around since 2007 and currently counts 71,816 members while dozens of stores—both online and brick and mortar—sell component parts to interested hobbyists.
Thanks in large part to the rise of inexpensive smartphone components, (such as tiny processors and tiny sensors), making a drone yourself has gone from an esoteric pursuit to the sort of thing a student might do with her mom or dad after school. As someone without any tinkering background, I was surprised at how easy do-it-yourself drone building was when I tried it at my graduate school’s drone club—sure, there was a tiny bit of soldering, but mostly the process involved hot glue, duct tape, and connecting different electrical components in the right places. In some DIY circles, going out and buying a drone is considered a bit of a cheap move, an admission you can’t be bothered to learn some relatively simple tech skills.
So, how is the FAA going to keep up with drones built with parts bought from different locations, borrowed from other people, or even 3-D-printed? I went searching for other DIY devices that are regulated in the United States, looking for parallels—and it turns out there are a number of them, given that the currently hip maker movement is really just a resurrection of some hoary American traditions.
A logical place to start seemed to be with amateur-built manned aircraft. A kindly representative for the Experimental Aircraft Association told me that roughly 30,000 DIY actual airplanes are registered in the U.S. at any given time, a number that’s grown slightly over the past decade. Before they’re legally allowed in the air, though, such aircraft need to undergo a considerable process of inspection and certification by the FAA. A similarly comprehensive process is required in the case of homemade cars and motorcycles—the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles must inspect the vehicle before it’s allowed on the road. Considering just how many DIY drones are already out there, and how quickly and easily they can be built and repurposed in comparison with human-size conveyances, it seems unlikely the FAA will be able to inspect every new build.
Irritated drone pilots like to mention that certain single-occupant manned aircraft designated as “ultralight”—this would include some gliders and gyrocopters—are designated not as aircraft but as vehicles. Most ultralight vehicles don’t have to be registered with the FAA, and you don’t need a license to fly one.
Another parallel might be DIY guns, which have made headlines in recent years due to the massive headaches they cause firearms regulators. A YouTuber identified only as “xtamared” has been attracting considerable attention this month for his homemade, partially 3-D-printed railgun—an invention both indisputably awesome and deeply worrisome. Less tech-savvy marksmen are able to purchase gun components known as “unfinished receivers” or “80 percent lower receivers,” which do not have to bear a serial number and are very hard to trace as a result. In 2013, a Mother Jones writer demonstrated how he was able to construct his very own untraceable AK-47 at a “build party.”
Still, consumer drones aren’t the same as guns for many reasons. There is no federal gun registration system (except for certain types of controlled weapons) and very little political will to introduce one. Further, gun ownership is constitutionally protected while the founding fathers were disappointingly silent on the topic of flying camera-carrying multicopters.
Yet another problem with DIY drone registration comes down to definition. The very word drone still doesn’t have a fixed definition in American culture, and the FAA’s announcement did not define which flying devices would be subject to the new rules. What qualifies as a drone and what doesn’t, and what part of a drone “is” the drone—especially when the device is cobbled together from various parts, from different sources?
A drone could perhaps be defined by its flight controller, which is best understood as the drone’s “brain,” controlling all the other components and helping the craft stay stable in the air. The problem here is that flight controllers can be swapped from drone to drone in a matter of minutes, and some multipurpose controllers can be used inside of both land and air vehicles that are very different from one another. Another problem: Flight controllers are easy to make and cheap to acquire from many different, small-time sources—and as this 16-year-old kid in the Philippines demonstrates, it’s quite easy to just make your own with an Arduino-based module if you don’t want to buy one.
So, there’s some precedent for registering DIY devices and maybe some ideas on how it could be done, but it remains to be seen how exactly the FAA will go about registering drones that don’t come from a store. There is little precedent for the FAA’s goal of registering every single drone: While a number of nations already have drone laws in place (like Australia, France, and Canada), none have attempted a universal registration requirement. Drone builders, many of whom have been calling for final regulations for years, are understandably wary—concerned that strict registration policies could legislate the DIY hobby out of existence.
That would be a real loss. The vast majority of DIY drone-makers are innocent, inquisitive geeks. They’ve also got skin in the game: Due to the time and sweat equity they’ve invested in their home-built devices and in the hobby as a whole, they’re generally much less likely to do dumb or risky things when they fly, as opposed to someone whose interest in drones only extends to picking up a cool toy for the holidays. Making it harder for DIY builders to operate would target the exact wrong trouble-making demographic.
What’s more, cracking down on DIY electronics would impact more people than just drone-makers. Many DIY drone components can be used for a wide range of projects, from ground-dwelling remote control cars to electronic jewelry. The surging maker movement—ferried along both by a slouching economy and an increasing cultural emphasis on tech and DIY skills—now attracts thousands upon thousands to its worldwide gatherings, which highlight homemade projects from across the spectrum. Many people of all ages say they’ve felt empowered by learning how to make their own stuff, from drones to pickles to hydroponic gardens to giant flame-breathing robots. I’m in that group: Thanks to drone building, I’ve gone from a total electronics ignoramus to someone who can actually explain how an electronic speed controller works.
While the FAA absolutely needs to regulate drones, it’s imperative that the new registration requirement will be well thought out and carefully implemented. New drone regulations and requirements should be accompanied by a full-court-press effort at educating the public, many of whom remain unaware that there are any drone restrictions at all. The learning opportunities, innovation, and fun of DIY drones shouldn’t be erased by overzealous regulation—and aspirant drone pilots shouldn’t be restricted to off-the-rack options.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.