Are you a drone hobbyist? If so, the federal government wants to get to know you a little bit better. In a press conference Monday afternoon, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced that the government will soon require recreational drone users in America to register with a national database before taking flight. Flanked by an assortment of aviation officials and industry leaders, Foxx said that the government will convene a task force to issue recommendations about how to devise and implement this national registry. The secretary said that he expects the task force to make its recommendations by mid-November and for the government to implement those recommendations by mid-December. “We feel the level of urgency here is sufficient to move as quickly as we can,” said Foxx.
The proposed registry is the first major federal step toward imposing some order on the burgeoning recreational drone sector. It comes in response to a series of well-publicized incidents in which various drone hobbyists, heedless of basic standards of safety and decorum, have flown their devices above wildfires, at major sporting events, near airports, and other unsafe places. When the police recover these errant drones, they often have trouble tracing them back to their owners—which, in turn, makes it difficult to punish those owners.
“If unmanned-aircraft operators break the rules, of course there should be consequences,” said Foxx—but it’s hard to enforce those rules and impose those consequences if the user in question can’t be identified. Though the mere existence of a registry won’t stop people from crashing their drones hither and yon, it will at least make it easier for authorities to identify the owners of the errant drones, and to hold those people accountable for their actions.
The accelerated timeline for the implementation of this database is meant to keep up with the surge in consumer demand for unmanned aerial systems. As I wrote last month, the FAA expects up to 1 million drones to be sold during the upcoming holiday season; the agency very much wants to get some regulatory measures in place beforehand, in order to up the chances that those drones will be used safely.
“It’s really hard to follow rules if you don’t know what the rules are, or that they apply to you,” Foxx noted Monday afternoon, and though the secretary did not explicitly state which rules he was talking about, he seemed to be referring to the existing restrictions on flights near airports and major outdoor sporting events, as well as the common-sense drone-flight guidelines promulgated by the “Know Before You Fly” campaign. The registration requirement will make it harder for recreational drone deviants to claim ignorance as an excuse. “People registering their drones will be exposed to the rules and the reasons for those rules,” said Foxx. He indicated that registration will be mandatory and that the requirement will also be retroactive, meaning that current drone users will also be expected to comply. By all indications, it will not cost anything to register.
The registry is no panacea. For one thing, registration is not the same thing as licensing; though this new registry will help the FAA keep track of who is flying drones, it won’t be used to ensure those users’ operational competence before allowing them to fly. It will be very difficult for the FAA to compel the owners of extant drones to retroactively register their devices. (“How are you going to enforce that? Are you going to send the drone police after people?” was one skeptical reporter’s question.) Secretary Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had trouble articulating how the registration requirement would be implemented and did not shed much light on several obvious questions, like what sort of information registrants will have to provide, how that data will be stored, and who will be able to access it. Still, I think the database is a step in the right direction. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Foxx. “This is not the whole solution; this is just a part of it.”
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.