Santa Claus may think twice before purchasing a small “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS, aka drone) to place under the tree this year. Under an initiative announced Monday, drone purchasers will have to register their drone and personal information with the federal government. Santa may soon reconsider whether he wants the responsibility and liability for what happens when those holiday presents crash or land where they aren’t supposed to be flying.
In a joint press conference the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced a task force charged with drafting recommendations for a registration system of drone purchases regardless of commercial or hobbyist use. Retroactive registration for previously purchased drones will also be required. The task force, comprised of 25-30 members from industry and public sectors, will present its report by November 20. Final implementation is scheduled for mid-December.
DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx and the FAA administrator were joined at the press conference by the FAA administrator, the president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aircraft (AMA) and representatives of various aviation industry groups including the Airline Pilots Association, PrecisionHawk, and the Consumer Electronics Association.
Safety is cited as the impetus for the registry and expedited timing since over 1 million recreational drones are expected to be sold by year-end. Furthermore, an FAA report says that airplane and drone “near miss” sightings have already doubled between 2014 and 2015. Foxx hopes the registry will assist efforts to track down operators of crashed drones. He stressed that registration will lead to operator accountability, particularly with “new users who have no experience operating in the U.S. aviation system.”
Absent from the press conference and subsequently-issued statements are how registration of non-commercial purchasers will accomplish these goals. Providing your name and address to Amazon.com or Walmart at checkout does nothing to convey an understanding of the rules governing drones in the air. Nor does it give an understanding of how to operate the technology– not to mention the resources spent identifying home-built drones and identifying previously purchased drones and their operators. Moreover, the point of sale purchaser is not necessarily the ultimate user or operator of the drone.
The task force must address when the drone is intended as a gift for a third party who may or may not be known at the time of purchase. The task force also has to determine how to track if the drone is stolen, lost, or sold on secondary markets such as Craigslist.
The FAA’s proposed rules released earlier this year included provisions for the registration of drones used for commercial purposes but did not address drones used by hobbyists. There is a significant difference in the size and capabilities of small drones on the market for commercial uses and for hobbyists. The range of size and technology capabilities from drones that fit into the palm of the hand to ones that push the current 55-lb. maximum and varies wildly.
Foxx compared required registration of drones to the registration of off-road vehicles on local streets. This is a flawed analogy echoed by other regulators and some legislators. Following the vehicle registration argument along its course, obtaining a state-issued license plate does not ensure that all vehicle operators know the rules of the road or will comply with the rules. Further, not every “vehicle” is the same.
Some industry companies expressed support for the task force and for the opportunity to participate in the discussion. But not everyone at the press conference was as supportive. Small drone manufactures, hobbyists and other technology advocates expressed skepticism over the FAA’s authority to require broad registration as well as its ability to enforce compliance. They said it is a near-impossible task of creating a registry that is not overly cumbersome and intrusive on purchasers and operators— and this is compounded by a tight turnaround timeframe with just over 30 days to release the task force recommendations.
The privacy aspect of drones, including video and other collected data, is largely a state issue and one not addressed in the task force announcement. A federal list of drone purchaser information would be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, providing a road map for thieves to identify potential data theft opportunities. Data privacy policies would need to be created to address when and how the information is stored and updated. For consumers already weary of data breach notices and compromised government databases, yet another list with their personal information is not likely to be met with confidence. The registry, its privacy considerations, and enforcement issues will also impact state lawmakers and local governments struggling with a patchwork of rules addressing a wide variety of safety and privacy concerns.
Will drones remain on Santa’s nice list, or move to the naughty list? That will be determined on November 20. Until then, expect “Star Wars”-themed drones to continue to fly off toy store shelves— and you’ll continue to read reports of airplane and drone near-misses.
Elizabeth Wharton is a public policy and business transaction attorney with the Atlanta office of Hall Booth Smith, P.C.