ATW Editor's Blog

US registration rule for UAV owners is a good move


It’s not often that ATW  praises a regulator, even rarer that to laud the introduction of yet more rules on an already heavily-regulated industry.

But I do think the heads of FAA and the US Department of Transportation deserve praise for their relatively swift action to require buyers and owners of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to register their aircraft via an FAA website.

Quite rightly, the new registration rule was hurried in to get ahead of a forecast Christmas surge in consumer UAV sales.

Beginning Dec. 21, new buyers of all UAVs weighing 0.55-55 lb. are required to register their aircraft before flying outdoors. Existing owners have until Feb. 19, 2016, to register their aircraft.

Online registration requires the owner’s name, physical address, email address and a $5 registration fee.

The registration rule closely tracks the recommendations of the task force assembled to advise the FAA and, as such, has gained broad industry support, which will further enhance its effectiveness.

FAA and DOT point out that the majority of near-miss incidents reported between UAVs and airliners occurred innocently because these new operators do not understand the rules or the potential consequences of careless behavior.

So FAA was also correct to emphasize compliance, not enforcement, which will help this new band of “flyers” to feel comfortable – even proud – to register and to learn about airspace rules and the safe operation of their UAVs. More carrot, less stick, in the early days will not only encourage compliance but also make it easier to spot the non-compliant.

A crucial part of registration is that small UAV owners will learn some important basic rules – such as they must fly their UAVs below 400 feet altitude, keep the devices in sight at all times, never fly over groups of people or stadiums and seek permission from control towers to fly within five miles of an airport. Once registered, ignorance is no longer an excuse for reckless behavior.

ATW has campaigned for urgent action to be taken on the growing danger that these small, personally-owned UAVs pose to airliners. The relative speed with which US regulators have responded to this issue is commendable.

There is still a huge and difficult task ahead to ensure compliance, but the registration rule is a good, actionable first step towards turning around a situation before there is a serious safety incident.

As a next step, the US should look to introduce a point-of-sale registration requirement, which would close the gap between purchase and registration. And it must work with enforcement agencies to ensure that where there are serious breaches of the safe-operation rules, those responsible are held to task.

This is also a problem that goes well beyond the US. Regulators around the world should, therefore, use the FAA solution as a model for creating similar registration schemes in their regions; and the sooner, the better.

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