If you're on the receiving end of one of the hottest gifts this holiday season, then the US federal government wants to know about it. After first flagging its intentions in October, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has today announced its drone database which requires owners of small unmanned aircraft to register their vehicles or face very steep penalties, which could include time in prison.
Two months ago, the US Department of Transportation (USDot) assembled a taskforce consisting of 25 to 30 representatives from government and the drone and aviation industries. The objective was to offer recommendations on how a drone registration system could best be rolled out.
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The group delivered its report on November 21 and now after mulling things over for a few weeks, the FAA has today confirmed what it describes as a "streamlined" web portal for drone registration.
Owners of small unmanned aircraft weighing anywhere between 0.55 and 55 lb (250 g and 25 kg) will need to enter their name, home address and e-mail address. An ownership certificate will then be generated, along with a unique identification number which must be stuck on the aircraft.
Registrants will need to be at least 13 years old, and existing owners who have operated their aircraft prior to December 21 will have until February 18, 2016 to register. Those purchasing aircraft after December 21 will need to register before their first outdoor flight. Registration will cost US$5, but as an incentive for people to get onboard sooner rather than later, the FAA is waiving this fee up until January 20, 2016.
The mandatory registration applies only recreational drones, with commercial use of drones still banned unless the operator has been granted an exemption from the FAA. Civil penalties for non-registration can carry up to a $27,500 fine, while criminal penalties go as high as $250,000 and up to three years in prison.
With drones only becoming more popular amongst hobbyists, the FAA has come under increasing pressure to keep tabs on those flying irresponsibly. A recent analysis by the Center for the Study of the Drone noted 921 incidents involving drones and manned aircraft in US airspace between December 17, 2013 and September 12, 2015. Of these, 35.5 percent were defined as "Close Encounters," that is, close enough that there was a possible danger of collision.
"We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season," says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly."
The FAA also notes that it is working on a similar online registration process for those using drones for business, which it says will launch by (US) spring of 2016.