For millions of American families, Christmas morning is a time for children to marvel at the magic of Santa, for families to come together around the spirit of giving, and for adults to admit they are not too old for toys. But if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who receive a drone this Christmas, the government wants you to make room for a new Christmas tradition: dealing with federal bureaucracy.
This week, the Federal Aviation Administration’s hastily formed and rushed drone registry task force produced its official report, calling on the FAA to mandate the registration of recreational drones—even those that are little more than toys.
The FAA plans to adopt the bulk of the task force’s recommendations and put them into effect just in time for Christmas. For those keeping track, that is less than two months after the FAA first announced its intent to regulate recreational drone use.
That remarkably fast timetable is possible because federal law allows agencies to bypass the normal notice-and-comment process in certain situations when the public interest is not served by the normally more deliberate pace of federal rulemaking. The FAA claims that the rising number of close encounters and near collisions between drones and civilian aircraft, particularly in proximity to the nation’s airports, is creating an exigency that can be addressed only via emergency rulemaking.
Americans should be skeptical. The problem of drone close encounters did not arise overnight. Airline pilots have reported drone-related incidents for years, and the FAA have had ample opportunity to develop a comprehensive, well thought out regulatory regime to address the situation. They failed to do so.
Consequently, they have claimed the authority to draft new regulations—complete with civil and possibly criminal penalties—and virtually cut the public out of the process. Citizens were given a scant 15 days to comment on the nebulous proposition of a “drone registry.”
What the Drone Registry Would Look Like
Meanwhile, its new drone task force—comprising 25 representatives of industry and interest groups—met for a mere three days to debate the ins and outs of drones and how best to regulate them. The results of their deliberations: Citizens should be required to register recreational drones weighing between 250 grams (about 0.55 pounds) and the upper allowable weight limit of 55 pounds.
As to how citizens should go about registering their drones, the task force recommended a web- or app-based approach, with citizens reporting their names and addresses in exchange for a unique FAA-issued ID number the owners would then affix to their quadcopters.
Here’s what drone owners would not be required to report: the make and model of their drone; its actual weight, range, or maximum altitude; or a serial number or other non-removable manufacturer ID (though they can voluntarily provide the serial number in lieu of receiving an FAA-issued ID number).
Just how effective would this registry be? The whole reason the FAA is doing this in the first place is to make it possible for law enforcement agencies to tie a drone found violating restricted airspace or otherwise operating dangerously back to its owner. This will, the agency says, promote a “safety culture” among the ranks of drone operators.
Ineffective and Unenforceable
Yet by placing the onus entirely on the individual owners to report and mark their drones, the task force’s proposal makes it a simple matter to evade the registry altogether. What pilot who intends to fly over runways or interfere with firefighting efforts—the alarming examples provided by the FAA to justify creating its registry—will voluntarily provide his name to a government database or mark his own drone, knowing that he is essentially signing his own warrant?
Certainly, the proposed registry may catch some drone pilots who negligently or unknowingly fly their drones in a dangerous manner. But those cases will be on the margins; most drones found violating restricted airspace will be as untraceable post-registry as they are today.
There are penalties in place to compel compliance—the task force notes that current fines for failing to register aircraft are in the neighborhood of $25,000—and the FAA has even floated the idea of criminal fines and jail time for failing to register drones. Yet the FAA has no means of tracing drone purchases en masse and only a limited capacity to trace an individual unmarked drone back to its owner. Absent a drone owner caught directly beneath an unmarked drone, enforcement of the registry requirement will be next to impossible.
Thirty days ago, the FAA embarked on a campaign to register drones, ostensibly because of the growing threat of drone-aircraft close encounters. The result of their rush job is, predictably, more first draft than final product and will do nothing to address the situation at hand.
It will, however, expose good-faith drone owners to potentially steep, as yet undetermined civil and possibly criminal penalties if (by some stretch of the imagination) the government’s registry site crashes on Christmas morning and they decide to fly their half-pound drones around the yard anyway.
Crafting good public policy requires time, deliberation, transparency, and a full and complete understanding of the consequences of a particular action. If any doubt remains that the FAA’s registry is a rush job at its worst, consider this line from the task force’s report:
It should be noted that the Task Force acknowledged that the timeframe provided for deliberations did not allow for in-depth analysis of all the factors involved in instituting a federal requirement for registering [drones], nor did it allow for an assessment of the impact of such a mandate on the recreational/hobby community.
Merry Christmas from the FAA.