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Drone registration page
Drone operators will encounter this FAA registration page starting Monday. (Credit: FAA)

The Federal Aviation Administration’s drone registration process will be as easy as making an online purchase. In fact, it is an online purchase, with a few extra rules and conditions.

The FAA’s online system won’t go live until Monday – but Chris Foster, an IT manager for the agency, demonstrated how it’ll work for journalists today.

Drone operators will be required to sign up if their remote-controlled aerial vehicles weigh more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams). If the drone is heavier than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), or if it’s going to be used for commercial purposes, you’ll have to register through the FAA’s more complicated paper-based process.

At the end of the online process, you’ll get a registration certificate via email, and you can also print out the certificate from your online account. You’ll have to mark the registration number on all the drones you own, and carry the certificate (on paper or electronically on your smartphone) when you’re flying the drone.

There’s no need to register each drone separately online; actually, the number will be linked in the FAA’s database to the operator rather than to the hardware. If your drones aren’t registered, and if they cause trouble, you could face civil penalties of up to $27,500, or criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and three years in jail.

That sounds serious, but the procedure seems as easy as signing up for an Amazon account. You go to the FAA’s registration website, create a log-in, reply to a verification email, and type your name and address into an online form.

Then you enter credit card information to pay a $5 registration fee. As an introductory offer, the FAA will refund that fee if you register by Jan. 20, but the credit card data could come into play if the agency needs to get in touch with you about your drone.

“That information will be available to us at some point if we need to investigate more about that registration number,” Foster told GeekWire.

He stressed that the credit card information would not be held in the FAA’s database. “We would only have access to it from the partners that we use in order to collect the data,” he said.

Chris Foster, an IT manager at the FAA, shows the drone registration certificate that he received in email from the agency's website. The number has been blacked out. (Credit: FAA)
Chris Foster, an IT manager at the FAA, shows the drone registration certificate that he received in email from the agency’s website. The number has been blacked out. (Credit: FAA)

Operators who bought their drones before Monday’s website opening will have 60 days to register. If you’re getting a drone for Christmas, you should register before you fly. The registration is good for three years, and then you’ll have to re-register and pay another fee.

The FAA is working on a procedure for de-registering yourself if you stop flying recreational drones. And if you sell off or discard a drone, it’s a good idea to remove or blot out the registration number.

All this is spelled out in the FAA’s FAQ file. Also, an educational campaign called “Know Before You Fly” is gathering steam. A smartphone app called B4UFLY is in beta right now. It’s meant to tell drone operators about the restrictions or requirements that are in effect for their location.

This week, the leaders of the campaign announced that Amazon and more than 20 other companies and organizations have signed on. Last month, the online retailer set up a “Fly Responsibly Drone Store” that provides educational information and buying guides – plus links to products, of course.

Today, Know Before You Fly sent out guidelines for drone operators to follow if they want to stay off Santa’s “naughty list.”

The Christmas angle is one of the reasons why the FAA’s drone registration effort is taking off so quickly: Officials want to get a better handle on the hundreds of thousands of recreational drones that are being sold during the holiday season, and head off some of the high-profile drone fails of the past year.

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