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Quadcopter drone
Quadcopters are among the types of drones that are expected to be registered. (NASA photo)

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration told the members of a policy task force to “think big, and think outside the box” as they met today for the first time to discuss a system for registering recreational drones.

This week’s three-day meeting in Washington comes against the backdrop of heightened capability, heightened expectations and heightened concerns about remote-controlled and robotic aerial vehicles.

Task force co-chair David Vos – who handles Project Wing for Google’s holding company, Alphabet – told attendees at an air traffic control convention on Monday that his venture could start using drones for commercial deliveries in 2017. Amazon and Walmart are working on similar systems..

Such commercial drones would be regulated under different rules that FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said are due to be finalized by late spring. He also told the task force that his agency already has granted more than 2,200 authorizations for commercial drone operations on a case-by-case basis.

The recreational drone market kicks the stakes up a notch. The registration task force has a Nov. 20 deadline to come up with recommendations for registering hundreds of thousands of drones.

“The holidays are weeks away, and unmanned aircraft are going to be a popular gift item,” Huerta noted in his prepared remarks. “By some estimates, 700,000 new aircraft could be in the homes of consumers by the end of the year. This means unmanned aircraft could soon far outnumber manned aircraft operating in our nation’s airspace.”

Drone operators already have been blamed for some high-profile bloopers – ranging from quadcopter crashes on the White House grounds and at a U.S. Open tennis match to last week’s attempted delivery of hacksaw blades, drugs and other contraband to Oklahoma prison inmates.

Huerta said the Oklahoma caper was a “perfect example” of how drone registration could facilitate enforcement action. “Perhaps registration would have helped authorities quickly identify the owner,” he said.

He charged the task force to come up with recommendations on a variety of issues relating to registering aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds: Which drones should be exempt, based on weight, speed or flying time? Should every drone have a uniform serial number? Should formal education be required before someone registers a drone? Should there be age limits? And should the registration requirements be retroactive?

At this week’s convention, Vos said wireless and Internet technology could be used to identify drones and make sure they keep clear of other aircraft and controlled airspace. Does that mean future drones could be equipped with a geofencing feature or even a hard-wired “kill switch”? Stay tuned.

While the task force delves into the details, drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Just this week, researchers at MIT reported that they’ve created autonomous drone planes that can fly their way around trees and obstacles without human guidance at up to 30 mph. Check out the video:


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