FAA introduces unworkable drone registration rules in time for Christmas

All fliers must pay $5 to register with the government

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The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced a new rule that will require the owners of almost every drone in the United States to register it with the federal government – and pay $5 for the pleasure of doing so.

Concerned with the booming number of flying toys, especially the 25 reports a month being filed with the FAA of people in aircraft spotting drones near their flight paths, the FAA has decided to implement the new rules [PDF] in an effort to get things under control.

Unfortunately, it appears to have lost track of reality, claimed authority it doesn't have, and introduced rules that are destined to fail miserably.

It is hard to find a drone that weighs less than 250 grams, meaning that under the FAA rule, hundreds of thousands of parents will be required to pay an additional $5 to register their child's toy with the federal government over the holidays and then affix a sticker to it with their name and address on it.

In other words, it is completely unworkable and the moment the FAA tries to enforce the rule, there will be hell to pay.

Amazingly, the FAA appears to have rushed the rule out precisely to capture the time of year. "We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season," said FAA Administrator Huerta. "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."

How did you...

We asked the FAA how it came up with the weight requirement, and a spokesman told us: "The threshold is based on scientific calculations. We assumed a drone flying at 400 feet that stopped responding and calculated the kinetic energy that would develop."

In other words, the FAA took a worst-case scenario – of a drone that flew out of range at 400 feet up and then crash landed on someone, injuring them – and then worked backwards to see what weight would be the lowest acceptable for that impact. And arrived at 250 grams.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that this is a hugely flawed approach and it makes you wonder whether the FAA is equipped to deal with the 21st century.

First off, only drones that are much heavier and more complex are even capable of reaching 400 feet straight up. A typical range for the $50-$150 drone is around 200 feet. So even if someone flew it straight up, it would likely fall from 200 feet.

So why 400 feet? Because that is the altitude at which the FAA can claim some kind of jurisdiction. Model aircraft guidelines – over which the FAA has no authority – cover aircraft below 400 feet and any distance more than three miles from an airport.

The FAA claims that the 400-foot rule is a "misperception that may originate with the idea that manned aircraft generally must stay at least 500 feet above the ground," and claims it has authority over all airspace from the ground up. However the law courts do not agree, repeatedly rejecting FAA authority overreach in efforts to fine companies thousands of dollars for what they felt was breaking the rules.

The reality

The reality is that below 83 feet, the airspace is under the control of the person who owns the land directly underneath it (thanks to a 1946 Supreme Court ruling). From 83 feet to 400 feet, the FAA has very questionable authority. And since this is the area that almost every non-commercial drone will operate in, it is unlikely that its new registration rule is worth the paper it's printed on.

Aircraft are restricted from flying below 500 feet except in extraordinary circumstances or when taking off and landing. That becomes 1,000 feet in urban areas. Exceptions are, of course, near airports and special areas like near the White House. Strict rules and laws already exist that cover those areas, and it's not clear why the FAA would try to force every drone owner across the country to register their device in an effort to catch the few people that break these rules.

In what appears to be a glimmer of common sense making its way into the FAA's thinking, the spokesman acknowledged that the federal agency's "main focus right now is going to be on education." He said the FAA was working on point-of-sale registrations, i.e., putting the onus on companies like Amazon to deal with the reality of getting people to register their toy drones.

But otherwise the FAA appears convinced that this is the best approach, and noted that it has the authority to fine people up to $27,500 per incident in "egregious cases."

No one wants to make light of the potential risk that a huge number of drones in our sky may have. But asking kids to register their toys with the federal government is almost the epitome of a federal regulator that has completely lost touch with reality.

People have 30 days to send their comments to the FAA over the idiotic new rules. Possibly in order to prevent a wave of critical online comments, it has yet to post the rules on the Regulations.gov website – they should go up next week for 30 days. In the meantime, you can send a letter to the US Department of Transportation in Washington.

No surprise

Not that this comes as much of a surprise to us at El Reg. We have been trying to get permission to run a test flight of our Lohan rocket for a few years now and continue to be amazed at the FAA's seeming inability to make rational decisions in a reasonable timeframe. ®


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