More than 250,000 drone owners registered their remote-controlled aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration during the first month, the agency announced Friday.
The goal of creating the federal database of drone owners is to better track them if the aircraft is flown irresponsibly or crashes. The registration, which began Dec. 21, refunded the $5 application fee during the first month.
“I am pleased the public responded to our call to register,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who added that drone users are responsible for helping keep airspace safe.
Under a hastily adopted rule, the drone owner must register a name, a physical address and an email address with the FAA. Drones are marked with unique numbers. New purchases are supposed to be registered before the first flight and previous owners have until Feb. 19.
The rule applies to owners who are at least 13 years old and have aircraft that weigh at least 9 ounces. The credit-card transaction to register drones online helps confirm the owner’s identity, despite the refunds.
The registry marks the latest balancing act for federal regulators who are trying to keep the skies safe as drones increasingly share airspace with passenger planes.
The FAA receives about 100 reports per month from aircraft pilots who said they spotted drones flying near them. But hobbyists who scrutinized the records contend that many of the reports involve objects that aren't drones or that involve drones following the rules.
Penalties for failing to register could reach $27,500 in civil fines and $250,000 and three years in prison for criminal penalties. But FAA officials say they are trying to educate drone owners about how to fly safely, rather than punish owners, unless there is an egregious incident.
“The registration numbers we’re seeing so far are very encouraging,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “We’re working hard to build on this early momentum and ensure everyone understands the registration requirement.”
The FAA received 5,600 comments about the registry.
Members of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which has 180,000 members, filed comments that questioned the FAA’s authority to require a registration. A 2012 law calling on FAA to integrate commercial drones into the skies with passenger aircraft also prohibited regulating recreational users.
“I am extremely disappointed in the proposed regulations as well as the process,” Terrance Jones of Bayside, Calif., who belongs to the academy and says he flies safely, wrote in comments about the registration rule. “I fear, once again, that fully legal, responsible, operation will be burdened once again, while those causing the problems will not obey the rules in any event.”
Another member, Charles Fox of Andover, Ill., said the registry would punish law-abiding citizens for the misdeeds of a few people.
“Do you really think the people that fly in places they should not are going to register their drone?” Fox asked in his comments. “It's like the gun laws, the criminals will still break the rules, the law abiding get penalized for a few bad apples.”
But DOT and FAA officials say they have the authority to register owners as a safety measure.
The Air Line Pilots Association, which has 52,000 members, supported registration to ensure accountability and traceability of drone operators. The group urged registration where drones are sold.
“Should a (drone) be involved in an event that requires investigation, the lack of registration and appropriate marking will hamper the process of the investigation,” wrote Randy Kenagy, ALPA’s manager for engineering and operations.
The registration rule effectively applied to hobbyists because commercial operators were already registered. The FAA has granted more than 3,000 special permits for commercial operators to fly drones for purposes such as aerial photography, utilities inspections and agricultural monitoring.
The FAA is working to make the online registration system available for commercial operators by March 21.