Drone owners must register their craft, feds say

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

The federal government said Monday it will require drone owners — even many hobbyists — to register their aircraft.

The announcement comes after reports of rogue robots flying too close to airliners and other manned aircraft, hovering around major sporting events and interfering with firefighting. At a press conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the Federal Aviation Administration will “spread the message that flying around airports and runways in unsafe and will result in stiff penalties and fines.”

The new rule is of particular concern in metro Atlanta, home to 11 airports, including the world’s busiest. Under FAA rules, recreational drone operators may not fly their aircraft within five miles of an airport without notifying the airport beforehand.

Hartsfield-Jackson International is partnering with the FAA on a public service announcement warning of the dangers of flying drones close to aircraft, said airport spokesman Reese McCranie.

“Registration will reinforce the need to for unmanned aircraft users, including consumers and hobbyists, to operate their drones safely,” Foxx said. It will also help the agency to “enforce the rules against those who operate unsafely by allowing the FAA to identify operators of unmanned aircraft.”

The FAA will form a task force to develop recommendations for a registration process and decide who should be exempt from registration “due to a low safety risk.” The task force is expected to submit its recommendations by Nov. 20, and the FAA aims to have rules in place by mid-December — before Christmas, when many people will be unwrapping drones as gifts.

Rich Hanson, director of government affairs for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents hobbyists, noted during the FAA press conference that many drones “are virtually toys that pose little to no risk,” and “the challenge therefore will be striking the right balance in setting the criteria for registration.”

Regulations devised by the task force “will have long-term implications for free speech, privacy and the commercial development and deployment of this nascent technology,” he said in a statement.

His remarks were similar to those of Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who urged the government not to “rush into new rules that could have unintended consequences down the line.”

Some opponents asserted that FAA does not have the authority to impose registration, but the agency said it has the authority to promote and protect air safety.

“We are looking very carefully at the regulatory process,” Foxx said. “We do feel the level of urgency here is sufficient to move as quickly as we possibly can.”

Yet to be seen is how operators — including those who already own drones — will be required to register, and how the FAA could prevent “bad actors” from simply choosing not to register their drones.

But Foxx said he expects “many, if not most” drone users to comply with registration, and noted that some today may not be aware of the safety rules it is promoting through an educational campaign called Know Before you Fly.

“It’s really hard to follow the rules if you don’t know what the rules are or if the rules apply to you,” Foxx said. “The signal we’re sending today is that when you’re in the national airspace, it’s a very serious matter.”

Foxx did not portray registration as a foolproof system and emphasized that “this is not the whole solution, this is just part of it.”