Game of Drones: Registration of Unmanned Aircraft

Unmanned aircraft systems (more commonly, drones) have become increasingly popular among hobbyists, and are sure to be on many gift lists this year.  It is estimated that 1.6 million drones intended for use as model aircrafts will be sold in 2015, with roughly half of those sales occurring during the final quarter of this year.  Just in time for the holidays, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has unveiled its rule requiring the registration of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS).  The Administration’s goal is to increase accountability among the owners of these devices, as well as to educate owners about their safe operation. 

The registration requirement applies to any UAS that weighs at least .55 pounds, or 250 grams.  Owners of drones that are used for model purposes only and that weigh no more than .55 pounds may make use of a new web-based registration system.  To determine weight, it is necessary to consider the total weight of the drone itself--plus any accessories, attachments, or payload--at the time of take-off.  Owners of larger drones and drones used for commercial purposes will still need to use existing paper-based registration processes for now.  The rules applicable to these latter categories of UAS will be addressed in a separate article.

The new registration rule becomes effective on December 21, 2015.  Owners who have a sUAS in use prior to the effective date will have sixty (60) days, or until February 19, 2016, to register.  Any sUAS that has never been operated prior to December 21, however, must be registered prior to any outdoor use.

Registrants must meet citizenship requirements and be at least 13 years old, although parents may register on behalf of younger children.  There is a $5.00 registration fee, which the FAA will waive during the first 30 days, and registrations must be renewed every three years.  The registration process itself is intended to be streamlined and mobile friendly. 

The information required to register is limited to the owner’s name, address, and email address.  This information will be available to the FAA and law enforcement to help identify the owner of a sUAS that has violated an operating rule or been involved in an incident.  Once registered, the owner will immediately receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration via email and be issued a unique identifying number which must be displayed on each of the hobbyist’s sUAS.   The number must be legible, remain affixed, and be readily accessible.  For example, an identifier can be placed inside a battery compartment if it can be accessed without the use of a tool. Members of the general public will be able to search the registry database by unique identifier to find the registrant’s name and address, but registrants’ email addresses will not be made public. 

The rule mandates that anyone operating a drone must have the Certificate of Aircraft Registration in his or her possession, whether in paper or electronic form.  Operators may be required to present the certificate upon request from a law enforcement officer.   Guidance from the FAA indicates that an owner/registrant is free to allow others to operate a drone, but issues of legal liability may well arise in the event of an improper use, if the UAS causes property damage or personal injury.  It would be advisable for owners to consult with their insurance agents to make certain their homeowners’ coverage would apply.

If the owner of an sUAS sells or otherwise transfers a drone, he or she would not need to update the registration system, but should remove the unique identifier from the aircraft before transferring ownership.   It is the responsibility of the buyer or recipient to create a new registration prior to operation. 

A failure to register an aircraft carries significant consequences, including civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties of up to $250,000 in fines and/or imprisonment for up to three years.  For more information on registering a drone or protecting yourself from potential liabilities, please contact Dan Minkler, Jill McQueen, or your Day Ketterer attorney at info@dayketterer.com or 330.455.0173.