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Recreational drones are expected to face new registration requirements. (Photo via Chase Jarvis)

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration says the interim rules for registering recreational drones are likely to be issued next month, just in time for the holiday season.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta’s update on the registration process, provided today in a blog post, comes just as a task force is wrapping up its recommendations for setting up the registration system. Huerta says the task force will deliver its report to the FAA on Saturday.

The main recommendations have already come to light, thanks to leaks from the task force:

  • Unmanned aerial vehicles larger than 9 ounces (250 grams) would have to be registered. That category would take in all but the tiniest fliers.
  • The registration requirement would be retroactive.
  • The names of drone operators and their contact information would have to be entered into an online database, but a single account and registration number could accommodate multiple drones operated by the same person. The FAA says the system would be similar to that used for “registering any newly purchased product with its manufacturer.”
  • It’d be up to the operator to mark the number legibly on the vehicle.

Huerta said the registration process will “instill a sense of accountability and responsibility” among drone operators. “For those who choose to ignore the rules and fly unsafely, registration is a tool that will assist us and our law enforcement partners in finding them,” he wrote.

The registration regulations to be issued next month would constitute an interim final rule, which means they’d be legally binding but subject to change after a period of public comment. Huerta said the interim rule would “likely be released next month and go into effect shortly thereafter.” The Associated Press quoted an unnamed industry official as saying the target date is Dec. 21.

FAA officials are moving on an accelerated schedule in part because they want to get ahead of the curve: As many as 700,000 remote-controlled air vehicles are expected to be sold during the holiday season. Another big factor is the concern over high-profile drone crashes, ranging from a White House intrusion and a mishap at the U.S. Open tennis tournament to last week’s Great Wheel glitch in Seattle.

At the same time, some experts worry that the rules will lead to new tangles. “We have a very large number of unregistered drones out there, and a very unsophisticated number of operators who have no idea what the FAA requirements are – or even what the FAA does,” Kenneth Quinn, a former FAA staff member who now advises drone companies, told Bloomberg Business. “To expect widespread compliance anytime soon is highly unrealistic.”

It’s not likely that the drone police would come after you if you didn’t register your holiday gift right away – but if your unregistered drone got into trouble with the authorities, you might end up facing a fine even if no damage is done.

Speaking of financial matters, the FAA warned this week that consumers should “think twice” before responding to commercial pitches to register drones. The FAA said there’s no need to work with “drone registration companies,” even though at least one company is already offering such services for a fee.

Update for 10:15 p.m. PT Nov. 21: In a statement, Huerta confirmed that he received the report from the task force members and thanked them for their work. “I will work with my team at the FAA to review their recommendations, as well as public comments we received, as we present the recommendations to [Transportation] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx.  We will work quickly and flexibly to move toward the next steps for registration.”


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