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Parrot Bebop drone
The Parrot Bebop drone, weighing in at 14.6 ounces, would have to be registered under the FAA’s newly issued rules. (Credit: Parrot)

The Federal Aviation Administration has laid out the rules for registering recreational drones, starting Dec. 21, plus the penalties for those who don’t.

It’s not likely that drone police will be watching the skies, but if your unregistered drone gets into trouble, you could get into trouble as well: You’ll be required to have a registration certificate when you fly your drone outdoors, and the drone will have to be marked with a registration number.

Failure to do so could leave you open to civil penalties of up to $27,500, or criminal penalties including fines of up to $250,000 and three years in prison.

“Make no mistake: Unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”

The rules apply to remote-controlled aerial vehicles that weigh more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams). Smaller drones, typically costing less than $100, need not be registered. That also goes for toys without a control system, such as Frisbees and hand-thrown gliders. A visual guide from the FAA shows you what’s in and what’s out. If your flying vehicle weighs more than 55 pounds, or if you’re using it for commercial purposes rather than just for recreation, you’ll have to use the FAA’s paper-based registration system.

The online registration system will be open for business on Dec. 21 via FAA.gov. The registration fee is $5. The FAA says the procedure will be free for the first 30 days “to encourage speedy registration” – but your credit card will still have to be charged, and the fee will be credited back to your account. Part of the motivation for structuring the process this way is to use credit card information to authenticate the user, the FAA said.

You’ll have to pay a fee every three years to renew your registration, and if you transfer ownership to someone else, the FAA says you should update the registration.

Once you register the drone, you’ll be able to download a certificate of registration that you can print out or keep electronically. The certificate should be available to show anytime someone’s flying the drone. Technically, only U.S. citizens and permanent residents are required to register, but the FAA is encouraging foreign nationals to register drone ownership as well. Registrants have to be 13 or older. If a pre-teen is the drone’s owner, someone older will have to do the registration.

The Web-based registration system will also give you a identification number that’ll have to be marked on the drone. If you own more than one, you just have to register once and use the same number on all your drones. If you owned a drone before Dec. 21, you have until Feb. 19 to register it. (That implies that any enforcement effort can’t get really serious until February.)

Check out the FAA’s FAQ file for further details.

The rules were issued less than a month after a task force turned in its recommendations for the recreational drone registration process. The FAA hustled up the timetable for a couple of reasons. First, the agency was worried about a rising tide of drone mishaps, including a crash on the White House grounds and at a U.S. Open tennis match. Second, the FAA wanted to get a better handle on the hundreds of thousands of drones that are being purchased during the holiday season.

“Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

The current “interim final” version of the rules can be revised by the FAA in the weeks ahead.

One of the members of the registration task force is Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Today he issued a statement that praised the FAA’s action, but also noted that the job is still just half done. The FAA is currently working on an updated set of rules for commercial drone operation, as opposed to recreational use. Those rules are expected to be issued next spring.

Here’s a key part of Wynne’s statement:

“Though it may not be perfect, this process and final rule shows that industry and government can come together quickly to develop policy. We are hopeful that same sense of urgency will be applied to the larger issues we must address for our industry.

“While the creation of a registration system is an important step to enhance safety, the FAA must continue its work to integrate UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] into the national airspace, starting by finalizing the small UAS rule. Putting the rule in place will provide the necessary tools and training to create a culture of safety that will help deter careless and reckless behavior.

“The FAA’s small UAS rulemaking has been beset by several delays. Considering that safety is at stake, we cannot afford to continue waiting. The FAA needs to make UAS integration a top priority.”

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