The Federal Aviation Administration has boldly declared its drone registry a success, even as hobbyists caught up in the new regulations complain that the agency broke the law to create an overly broad federal database.
Speaking to the press during the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta defended the regulation requiring any drone aircraft of more than half-a-pound to be registered with the agency by Feb. 19 as “proof that government, working with private industry, can innovate, cut through red tape, and use technology to tackle emerging challenges.”
Critics have said the FAA’s drone rule is overly broad in encompassing model aircraft hobbyists who traditionally control the vehicle with a radio remote control. The new drones that the regulations ostensibly target are controlled by an onboard computer and typically used for taking photos and video. Traditional model aircraft hobbyists have been around for decades and have never before been required to register their hobby with the government.
But in boasting that 181,000 aircraft had been registered in the agency’s small-drone database, Huerta made no distinction between model airplanes and the smartphone-controlled quadcopter drones many families received under the Christmas tree this past holiday season.
The FAA is aiming for full compliance for all types of unmanned aerial vehicles, and was on the CES floor near the drone exhibitors to register owners, even waiving the $5 fee to encourage sign-ups. But the distinction between types of aircraft is at the heart of the tension over the new rules.
The FAA been accused of bypassing the normal rule-making process to speed its new regulations into place before the end of holiday shopping. More significantly, by including model airplanes in the database it stands accused of violating the law by ignoring an exemption for model airplanes that was included in a 2012 FAA reauthorization measure.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which calls itself the world’s “largest model aviation association,” encouraged its 175,000 members in December to hold off from registering until the February deadline while it worked with the agency to integrate its own registry with the federal database.
“AMA is also fully considering all possible legal and political options for alleviating this unnecessary regulatory burden on our members,” said the organization, which participated in the FAA’s drone task force in late 2015.
Nancy Egan, general counsel for 3D Robotics, a San Francisco-based drone manufacturer and task force member, spoke highly of the task force process.
“The public partnership works, and industry can come to solutions to the challenges of integration if we give it a chance,” said Egan.
The Consumer Technology Association, a trade industry association and the organizer of CES, estimates that revenues for the U.S. drone market in 2016 will approach $953 million – a 115 percent increase from the previous year. The organization also estimates 2.8 million drones will be sold this year.
“Safely integrating all of these new pilots into our National Airspace System is one of the FAA’s top priorities – to protect manned aircraft, to protect people on the ground, and to protect innovation,” said Huerta.
In October 2015, USA Today published an analysis of FAA data on unmanned aircraft sightings from April 1, 2014 to Aug. 20, 2015, finding that of the 891 incidents reported to the agency, 248 occurred within 500 feet of a passenger plane.
Reports of crashed drones emerged as Christmas presents were unwrapped and families tested out their new toys. And even before the rules were released, safety concerns were confirmed by reports of small drones falling from the sky and injuring unsuspecting bystanders below.
But critics of the FAA’s database argue the new registry won’t prevent drones from crashing or bystanders from getting injured.
Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for Chinese drone manufacturer DJI, said industry participation helped make the FAA’s registration “infinitely better” than it might otherwise have been, and said industry-led initiatives such as geo-fencing will also help improve safety.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have proposed mandating use of geo-fencing technology — a GPS or radio frequency-based software feature for drones that acts like an invisible fence.
Schulman, who worked on the drone task force, said owners of DJI drones had access to geo-fencing software that verified pilots can use to help plot flight paths around restricted or hazardous areas.
“Those and other industry-led safety efforts are driven by our common interest in public safety, not by any regulatory red tape,” said Schulman.