Drone Registration is not the Answer to irresponsible UAS flying

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The public pressure has been high.

  • Near misses between quadcopters and airplanes plus incidents at places like the US Open have gained major coverage by the media.
  • The editorial comments declaring that the sky of drones is falling are too numerous to count.
  • Every Member of Congress, especially those who urged that the FAA issue the final UAS rules immediately, have called for actions to prevent another incident of a UAV creating a safety risk.
  • ALPA and AOPA have joined the chorus of sirens warning of an imminent disaster.

So how does the federal government react to all of this insistence on action? To quote the Wall Street Journal:

“The Transportation Department plans to announce Monday that it wants to soon require registration for all unmanned aircraft ‘except for toys and those with minimal safety risk,’ according to a draft news release reviewed by The Wall Street Journal…..

The department plans to create a task force of more than two dozen government and industry representatives to recommend the specifics of a registration policy, including which drones should be included, how users will register and whether the rules will apply to drones already sold, according to people familiar with the plans. The draft news release says the department wants to ‘create a culture of accountability’ for drone operators.

Several people said the government aims to issue final registration rules before Christmas, an exceptionally fast timeline for aviation regulations. Typical aviation rulemakings take years.” [emphasis added]

u11Lots of fanfare, a well-attended press conference and a lot of ACTIVITY (in contrast to ACTION) will be generated. Pictures of Secretary Foxx and Administrator Huerta will start the lead stories of the national news and be on front pages of the major newspapers. It is at best a Band-Aid® fix and at worst a waste of an opportunity to address a real problem.u88

  1. Registration numbers on aircraft (see above pictures) do provide a system of accountability. The size of each civil drone is usually small. Their outer dimensions can be drawn within a yard circumference. This space is not a billboard which will add to the ability to regulate bad operators.
  1. Further, the structures of UASs are highly functional; the engines, propulsion and controls comprise a significant percentage of the available space. Thus, the surfaces where the registration number can be displayed are limited and small. It is highly unlikely that the maximum dimensions of these numbers will be measured in fractions of square inches. In contrast 14 CFR §29, which requires a minimum of 12 inches.


The above pictures of aircraft show the visibility of GA aircraft. There is also a close-up picture of four UASs; one of them includes an N registration number. Which one?
  1. The real problem is that, once a UAS airborne, it will be difficult, if not impossible to read the identifying number. An observer on the ground will neither be able to read the Registration Number nor trail it. Unlike aircraft, drones can land anywhere and thus can elude the enforcement dragnet. Putting a registration number on a UAS is a Band Aid ®; the likelihood of detection and accountability only marginally, a very small %, improves.

→ While even a small N number on a drone can identify it, that is ONLY useful if it has crashed or is in the hands of the authorities. The registration has little value when the UAS escapes or there is an opportunity to interdict an impending problem.

  1. The real answer for preventative action and real accountability is technology; whether it is a strong RFID signal or some small transponder, the right solution is some radio which broadcasts a signal identifying the specific UAS and its owner.  See the lessons learned from a FOIA response in which it is clear that technology is needed for enforcement of the FAA’s rules (see especially lesson #2). With such an information link, the federal or local investigator can capture which UAS is being observed.
  1. The FAA has the authority to issue emergency regulations; that is the only procedural method by which registration “rules” would be effective before the Holidays.
  1. If that action of declaring an emergency is contested in the courts, the FAA will be compelled to articulate who registration will reduce/eliminate that urgent safety risk. Registration will not easily equate to accountability, the raison d’être.
  1. The goal of having a registration process soon and the idea of an Advisory Committee are antithetical in temporal terms. The charter and selection will consume time. Will all interested groups be included? If the number must be limited, then delay will occur. More critically, the selection of which drones fall into the category of “toys and those with minimal safety risk”, which are excepted, will be a matter of great conflict among interested OEMs, the user associations and the safety advocates. The development of any consensus on which must be registered will not be easy; for example, are ALPA and AUVSI likely to agree on any standard?
    • If the expedited target of this activity is to register the drones being sold between now and the holiday season, the rules may be in place by some date in December. They may do that, but can they be ready to implement? No, the infrastructure needed to capture all of these registrations will take more time. Just creating the forms will consume months.
    • Certainly the FAA’s Registration Office in Oklahoma City is not prepared to handle a million new documents.
    • Prospective regulations are comparatively easy to establish and enforce. Retroactive applicability is infinitely more difficult; why, who, what, when and where prior owners must register are SUBSTANTIAL questions.
  1. Registration should have been included in the Part 107 NPRM issued back six months ago. The seasoned regulators knew that they needed some record of ownership to be able to enforce the rules. One could suppose that one of the layers of reviews removed this useful regulatory hook. The experts above the FAA likely “reasoned” that such a requirement would stifle the growth of the UAS industry. It is possible  that some lobbyist put that concept into the ear of an  OST or OMB staffer. If registration was included in that initial regulatory package, it would have been better accepted. Now, predictably, the drone advocates are opposed and worry that this is the beginning of incremental encroachment on their businesses.
  1. Missed opportunity—In addition to registration, the veteran FAA regulators knew, but probably did not articulate, that in order to effectively regulate the UAS expansion, they need more investigators. The reason why such a disruptive thought was not spoken is that Congress has spoken in more than a few annual budgets—no new FAA staff will be authorized or appropriated!!! One way to have funded the necessary FAA staffing to assure safety of UAS would be to charge for registrations. With a million new drones to be sold in the next few months, a $10 per initial registration fee and a $5 per annual reregistration charge would fund the personnel needed to do what Congress, the airlines, AOPA, ALPA and others have urged – real enforcement of the UAS FARs. With this second iteration of the UAS rules, the opportunity to have the users contribute to their safety has evaporated forever.

There is no doubt that something must be done to curb the irresponsibility operation of UAS, but the simple affixing of small numbers on the side of distant, fast moving drones is, at best, a Band Aid® response. More is needed, even if it takes it. Activity is a waste; action is a must.


ARTICLE: Drones Face New Regulatory Push

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15 Comments on "Drone Registration is not the Answer to irresponsible UAS flying"

  1. Registration enables tracking, which in turn will enable accountability and/or issuance of any sanctions or fines for irresponsible/reckless drone flight ops..by anybody. Even so called smaller “toy” drones/quad-copters can ruin your day if your on the wrong end of a “kinetic event” or “camera snoop.” The devil is in the details, however. Prior purchasers, types/size/classification of drones, etc. As an R/C airplane pilot, however, AMA sanctioned flying fields require AMA registration (academy of model aeronautics) of pilots (but not A/C). A/C models are then supposed to have AMA numbers displayed as well as inserting name/address/contact info/AMA number card or slip of paper inside the model. We get up to $ 1M liability insurance too. Registration ID issues with drones? A simple ‘technology’ solution would be to have all drones (requiring registration) to be equipped with ID stamp info on RF downlinks, wireless ‘beacons’ and/or cell phone signals. Problem solved.

  2. Rodger, we agree. The blog mentioned the possibility of RFID like technology.

  3. Rodger, thanks for the information about AMA; it would be good for AMA to tell the task force. I’m glad we agree that technology, like an RFID, is the best answer.

  4. Transponders have weight – not compatible for drones, and the infrastructure to track the drone transponders would be HUGE. Registration gives a method of tracing errant drones, like the FAA can with errant aircraft

  5. PatB– Thanks for the comment and you’re right the current transponders would be too large for UASs; that is implied in the notation “small transponder”. The technical needs for a UAS transponder might be sufficiently limited so as to allow miniaturization.

  6. Now that I’ve read the FAA Report/Recommendations on “Drone Registration” earlier this month, I was frankly a bit surprised that it would be applied to models (UAS/UAVs) ranging from 250 grams to 55 lbs….and to ALL “unmanned aerial vehicles or systems”. This apparently will apply to “standard” RC Model A/C of all sizes and maybe even un-tethered “free flight” models(?). Most of us serious RC flyers are already members of the AMA. {Glad to see AMA was part of this task force/panel) And no mention of ‘altitude’ or ‘range’ capability of said vehicles either(?). So I guess very small/light ARF styrofoam electric “park flyers” will need to be registered with the FAA too. But my biggest surprise was the “no charge/fee” registration. A missed revenue opportunity…one that could have been borne by manufacturers and/or retailers (albeit, at some nominal amount). As usual, implementation and enforcement details remains to be seen. “PACK44N”

  7. Rodger, again thanks for your comments. Agreed on all points. The news that AMA asked to dissent to the “unanimous” report did not make it in this week’s digest http://jdasolutions.aero/blog/uas-digest-12-top-drone-news/-. It will be interesting to see how their objections are addressed by the DoT/FAA.

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