The US Government Wants to Register Drones. Here's Why It Should.

A DJI Phantom 3 drone is flown during a drone demonstration at a farm.

A DJI Phantom 3 drone is flown during a drone demonstration at a farm. Alex Brandon/AP

There are a lot of concerns about integrating drones into the national airspace.

The drones are coming. Soon, they’re going to be delivering our packages, our medical supplies, taking our photos, walking our dogs, and potentially end up being as ubiquitous as the smartphone. And while all that is certainly exciting, it also creates a ton of regulatory concerns about integrating drones into the national airspace.

Last month, the US government announced that it planned to require any consumer drone to be registered with the Department of Transportation (DOT). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) convened a “task force”—including companies like Amazon, DJI, Google, and others with vested interest in the drone industry—to work through the proposal.

They deliberated for three days last week ahead of a Nov. 20 deadline to deliver recommendations to US Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx—and according to a report from the Wall Street Journal Nov. 6, they are going to recommend a pretty wide-sweeping registration policy for drones. And although some may see the move as an unnecessary injection of the government into what is ostensibly a hobbyist activity in the US, it will probably turn out to have been a sensible move.

The FAA has estimated that 1 million drones could be sold this holiday season. The agency has also not yet codified its regulations on how drones should be incorporated into the national airspace, and is right now relying on a collection of confusing suggestions it put together that drone-flying consumers should follow, rather than laws.

This will likely change in the next year, but right now, the FAA and the DOT need a solution to deal with the influx of drones. And for good reason: We are terrible drone pilots.

Flying drones is hard

Although some in the US are talented enough to control drones that whip around tight racetracks at 70 mph, most of us are not.

In the last few months, drones have crashed into the White House and the US Open, have cut open Enrique Iglesias’ finger, obstructed forest fire rescues, and apparently come close to “near misses” with commercial jets. Some of these incidents were the result of poor flying, but they all seem to have also involved some poor decision making skills, whether that was thinking it was a good idea to touch a drone’s spinning blades or flying near planes carrying hundreds of people.

Anne Swanson, a partner at the law firm Cooley -- which helped secure some of the first commercial exemptions for businesses to fly drones in the US—told Quartz that the registration plan made sense, especially as some lawmakers have been looking to impose stricter regulations on hobbyist drone users.

“It’s nothing compared to some of the legislation that was pending on the Hill,” Swanson said, such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s bill that would require drone operators to pass a test before flying, and take out insurance on the drone. Swanson said the FAA’s motivation is “safety-based and education-driven.”

In 2012, Congress passed a bill with an exemption that allowed hobbyist drone flyers to legally operate drones in the US airspace, but the law mandated that the FAA have licensing and policies in place for commercial drones by 2015. That date passed, and no laws are in place, and the actual regulations around flying drones are still muddy.

But had the FAA not moved forward with a registration plan, Congress may have acted drastically, Swanson said.

“I think folks on the Hill would’ve moved a little more quickly with provisions that were a little more detailed and probably much more wide-sweeping,” she said. “That’s why [the FAA] is moving with alacrity.”

And before any “Don’t Tread On Me” activists out there ask: This isn’t taking away any freedoms from US citizens. Although there’s a strong desire for a national database for things that have been proven to be far more deadly—like guns—Swanson says there’s no constitutional argument to hide behind with drone registration, like there is with a national gun registration database.

“A constitutional amendment kind of gets in the way, at least on the side of the NRA and the folks that are opposing that,” she said. “We don’t have any of that here.”

Swanson thinks the FAA has the authority to set up a database like this, solely under the agency’s directive of keeping US airspace safe: “It may get challenged in court, but I think ultimately they’ll win.”

Not everyone is a fan of the FAA’s proposal. Jonathan Rupprecht, an attorney that specializes in the laws on drones and drone registration, thinks that registration will be impractical. In a blog post responding to the FAA’s proposal, he said:

A drone sucked in a jet engine is going to be all over the place. Are you going to require metal placards attached to the drone? Furthermore, it is easy to scratch off a serial number. Is possession of a drone with a scratched off serial number going to become illegal?

Rupprecht also argued that having drones registered won’t actually stop anyone from misusing a drone, or committing any crimes. He thinks, instead, that the FAA should look into location-tracking technology, called geo-fencing, that could stop drones from getting too close to buildings to better protect US citizens.

“Registration points you to who might have caused the incident, geo-fencing can help prevent it,” he said. (Swanson argued that knowing who caused a crime is better than not knowing at all.) Others think we should just rely on common sense and “community conscience” when it comes to flying drones.

Protecting the potential drone industry

Drone technology is at an inflection point right now. It’s entirely possible that 2015 could be what 2007 was for cellphones—drone manufacturers are opening up their devices to third-party developers, new startups are popping up every day around drone technology and hardware, and multinational corporations like Alphabet and Amazon are starting to explore a wide array of potential uses for what are essentially flying computers.

To pass legislation that could limit drones’ proliferation among consumers could kill the industry before it takes off, and the FAA seems to be aware of this. That’s why it’s trying to head some lawmakers off at the pass. The registration process will also help minimize any discrepancies that exist in city and state policies toward drones—in some states, it’s OK to shoot down someone else’s drone, and in some cities police can decide that it’s reckless endangerment to fly a drone in public. A national policy would likely supersede those differences between states.

“I mean, drones also fly from city to city,” Swanson added.

This registration process will help the FAA educate flyers on how to safely operate the drones they’re going to receive for Christmas, Swanson said, as well as stave off, at least for now, stricter impositions on drones. It’ll also help the FAA figure out who was responsible in any sort of drone-related accident, and the agency will be able to tell local police or whichever other agency that wants to know. It could even potentially deter people who feel inclined to do something silly with a drone if they know their name is on file with the government.

Swanson says she’s met with multiple members of the task force, and that they are mostly on board with the proposal. “There aren’t any bomb throwers on that task force.”

How the actual registration process will actually work—or what current drone owners will have to do with the drones they already have—isn’t yet clear. The registration will most likely be free, and done through an online government portal, according to the Journal, rather than through the mail, or at a federal building. Drone owners will likely have to write a registration number on their drones, like a car’s license plate.

“You can put it in indelible ink, you can bedazzle it,” one task force member told the Journal. “It just needs to be legible so [authorities] are able to read it.”

But will the government be able to pull off putting together a database of that scale in such a short timeframe?

“The thought of half a million or so new drone registrations is just Obamacare all over again,” Swanson said.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.