Concerns raised over FAA’s UAS registration plan

By Patrick C. Miller | December 17, 2015

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Monday its plan to have all owners of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) register them with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but doubts are being expressed about how the plan will be implemented and enforced.

Because those operating commercially under Section 333 exemptions must already register their UAS, the new system primarily impacts hobbyist and recreational users. It covers drones weighing between .55 and 55 pounds. Beginning Dec. 21, the FAA will enable registration through what it calls “a streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process.”

A $5 fee to register UAS will be waived during the first 30 days after the website goes active. UAS owners can register multiple aircraft under a single number. The registration will be valid for three years.

During the news conference announcing the procedure, deputy FAA administrator Michael Whitaker was asked how the registration requirement would be enforced. After noting civil penalties of up to $25,000 and criminal penalties of up to 3 years in prison, he said the FAA’s goal was to work with law enforcement agencies throughout the country to achieve compliance without being punitive.

However, Dan Schwarzbach, CEO of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA), said the organization has told the FAA multiple times over the last two years that while state and local agencies can enforce UAS laws passed by state and local governments, they can’t enforce FAA regulations.

“The FAA issued a document with guidance to law enforcement over a year ago saying ‘Here’s what we’d like to see you do,’” he noted. “We told the people in the UAS Integration Office that we just can’t do that.”

As recent as this August, Schwarzbach said that the U.S. Department of Justice held a meeting with the ALEA and UAS experts to discuss the issue. He said it was made clear to the FAA that law enforcement agencies couldn’t enforce federal civil regulations.

“There is nothing compelling for state and local law enforcement to go up to someone who’s not breaking any law or rule and just get information from them to supply to the FAA when there’s no vehicle set up to even to do that,” he said.

While some praised the FAA’s plan to register all drones, others were critical of the FAA’s approach.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA)—which was on the Task Force that developed and made recommendations on the registration procedure—immediately expressed disappointment with plan.

“Unfortunately, the new rule is counter to Congress’s intent in the Special Rule for Model Aircraft and makes the registration process an unnecessary burden for our more than 185,000 members who have been operating safely for decades,” wrote Dave Mathewson, AMA executive director, in a blog on the organization’s website.  

Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said, "AUVSI is pleased that the FAA has moved forward with a final registration rule that will lead to increased accountability across the entire aviation community. Under the FAA's proposed small UAS rule released earlier this year, commercial operators would be required to register their platforms. Extending this requirement to consumer UAS operators will help promote responsibility and safety.”

Attorney’s specializing in UAS law also weighed in on the matter. Attorney Michael Sievers who co-chairs the Hunton & Williams law firm unmanned systems group, told UAS Magazine that he views the FAA’s rule as a means of responsibly educating new UAS users unfamiliar with aviation.

“It certainly gives an opportunity to educate them about the airspace issues that they may not be aware of,” he said. “Whether it makes a meaningful dent in the safety risk posed by recreational use of UAS is certainly an open question.”

Florida lawyer Jonathan Rupprecht wrote a lengthy legal critique of the FAA’s registration plan and posted it on his firm’s website. Even if law enforcement agencies won’t enforce the FAA’s regulations, he believes states will eventually pass laws making it illegal to own an unregistered drone.

“The local law enforcement is going to be the boots on the ground enforcing the law,” Rupprecht predicted.

James Mackler, a criminal defense attorney with the Nashville law firm of Frost Brown Todd who also specializes in UAS law, wrote about his impression of the FAA’s interim final rule. While he believes that requiring all UAS to be registered is a step in the right directions, he disagrees with how it’s being implemented.  

“There’s no way to distinguish within the penalty system between the kid who doesn’t register his .55-pound drone and the commercial user who doesn’t register his 55-pound drone,” Mackler explained. “It’s not really the FAA’s fault. It’s the result of the way they’ve gone about this rulemaking process and leaving the statutes the way they are.

“Congress has to change the statute,” he continued. “The FAA can’t do that. But in the meantime you end up with a one-size-fits-all penalty when there are lots of different sizes of violations.”


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