When the Federal Aviation Administration launched its national, mandatory drone registration initiative in mid-December 2015, nobody really knew whether drone owners would comply. It’s not that the registration process is onerous—registrants must pay $5 and provide some basic identifying information in exchange for a registration number to be visibly inscribed on all of the registrant’s drones. But it still requires effort, awareness, and a sense of personal responsibility, and some drone hobbyists have been known to flout the latter two virtues. Indeed, the whole reason why the FAA fast-tracked this registry in the first place is because too many operated their drones in a reckless manner.
But here we are, about a month and a half after the program’s launch, and, lo and behold, it isn’t a total flop. On Monday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced that his agency had processed approximately 325,000 drone registrations since Dec. 21. This number exceeds the number of manned aircraft registered with the FAA, and I guess this isn’t very surprising, given that manned aircraft cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars. At a drone-industry gathering on Monday, according to the Hill, Huerta lauded the speed with which the registry was conceived and implemented and called it “proof that when government and industry partner, we can innovate, cut through red tape and use technology to tackle emerging risks.” I give Huerta and his collaborators immense credit for devising and launching the drone registry with such seamlessness and speed, and they certainly deserve to celebrate the number of registrations logged thus far. But while that 325,000 number is impressive, it might mean less than the FAA would have you believe.
Near the end of last year, the FAA estimated that 1.6 million consumer drones would be sold in America in 2015, with approximately half of those sales coming during the holiday shopping season. I’m not a math guy, but I’m pretty sure that 325,000 is smaller than 1.6 million. Now, of course, the number of registrations doesn’t directly reflect the number of drones, because one registration number can apply to a drone owner’s entire fleet. So let’s be charitable and double that sum and assume that the 325,000 registration numbers apply to 650,000 drones. Let’s also be charitable and cut the FAA’s sales estimate in half, and let’s also not worry about drones that were sold before 2015. So, great, that makes 650,000 drones registered out of 800,000 drones total. That’s a lot of drones that have been registered. But that’s also a lot of drones that haven’t been registered. And this brings me back to what I was saying earlier about awareness, effort, and personal responsibility. Even the most charitable reading of the current FAA drone registration totals implies that there are hundreds of thousands of drones in America that have not yet been registered. And these unregistered drones are probably the ones that ought to inspire the most concern. Because the sort of person who is careless enough to, say, crash his drone into a packed football stadium is probably also the sort of person careless enough to not bother registering his drone with the government.
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.