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Parrot Disco
The Parrot Disco is one of the new drones introduced at CES 2016. (Parrot photo)

The Federal Aviation Administration’s chief says he’s happy to see about 181,000 Internet users register recreational drones in less than three weeks’ time – and to help new drone owners, the agency has unveiled a smartphone app that shows no-fly zones.

Even if there’s a chance you might own a drone someday, you could save $5 by taking the FAA up on its introductory offer of free registration through Jan. 20. (That’s what I did.) The FAA requires all recreational drones heavier than a half-pound to be registered by Feb. 19, but the registration website actually registers people and their contact information rather than the hardware. No drones required.

FAA officials hurried up to establish a registration system because they were concerned about a series of high-profile drone crashes last year – including an intrusion on White House grounds. They tallied hundreds of occasions when drones interfered with air traffic. The Computer Technology Association estimates that about 400,000 drones were sold during the holiday season, and the FAA wants to get a better handle on all those flying robots.

During today’s drone panel at the International CES show in Las Vegas, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said he was “very encouraged by the numbers” that have been racked up since the registration website went live on Dec. 21.

As of this morning, 181,061 people have registered as drone owners, Huerta said. “But this is just the beginning,” he said. “Now that we have set up the registration system, our challenge is to make sure everyone is aware of the requirement and registers.”

 

Recreational drone operators will be required to have a registration certificate, either on paper or on a mobile device, whenever they fly. If an unregistered drone gets into trouble, the operator could face civil penalties of up to $27,500 or criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and three years in prison. Check out the FAA’s FAQ for details.

To help new operators get their bearings, the FAA has created an app called B4UFLY that lets users know whether they can fly their remote-controlled aircraft in their current location, or pinpoint the places where they can or can’t fly for a given time. The iOS version of the app was released today, and the Android version is in beta.

In addition to the FAA’s registration website, an educational website called “Know Before You Fly” has been set up in collaboration with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Academy of Model Aeronautics. However, the AMA has advised its members to hold off on drone registration while its leadership takes a closer look at the regulatory and legal implications.

The FAA is going through a separate process to draw up its final set of regulations for commercial drones – the more capable flying machines that may someday deliver your Amazon purchases. Those rules are due to be issued by late spring.

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