Drone Policy Abuzz in Washington as Holiday Gift Season Approaches

An army of small drones are heading for the national airspace this holiday season — many of them hiding in closets and gift-wrapped boxes under Christmas trees.

The flood of new aircraft — and new pilots — is expected as federal officials are preparing to tighten their grip on drone fliers. The Federal Aviation Administration said in October it would require registration of drones and a task force made recommendations for the registration system for small drones in November.

Federal rules already require commercial users to register to fly drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems. But officials, as well as representatives of the aviation industry, are worried that recreational drone users, including the pajama-clad pilots who might take their drone for a virgin flight on Christmas Day, might not understand the rules behind launching into U.S. airspace.

Safety concerns have grown to the point that members of Congress want the federal government to be able to track down a drone operator in case something bad happens.

The FAA is worried that the shopping season ahead could put hundreds of thousands more drones into the air, increasing risks that are already mounting. The agency is engaged in a public awareness campaign called “Know Before You Fly” in addition to preparing new rules on registration.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta cited estimates as many as 700,000 new drones will be sold this season. The influx of drone pilots is a concern not just for the FAA, but also for local law enforcement, pilots, and members of Congress.

“Many of these new aviators may not even be aware that their activities in our airspace could be dangerous to other aircraft — or that they are, in fact, pilots once they start flying their unmanned aircraft,” Huerta said.

Drone sightings by pilots have shot up this year, the FAA said in an August report. By Aug. 9, pilots had reported more than 650 sightings in 2015, compared to just 238 sightings in 2014.

The results of that report have been disputed by some groups wary of more regulation. They say not all the sightings were of actual drones.

But the problem the devices pose to other pilots in-flight has resulted in real-world consequences in the case of wildfire fighting efforts, according to testimony from the U.S. Forest Service at an October hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

The U.S. Forest Service told the House panel that wildfire-fighting aircraft encountered drones 21 times this year, up from four the year before. In 12 instances, firefighting efforts were halted and aircraft needed to land or relocate when encountering the drones.

That led Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Peter A. DeFazio to call for the FAA to crack down on the operators.

“We had interruption in critical firefighting activities this summer because of idiots flying their toy drones into areas where we wanted to operate aircraft to fight the fire and we had to suspend operations,” said the Oregon Democrat. “There needs to be consequences for people who do those sorts of things.”

Pressure to Keep the System Simple

The 18-page task force report delivered in late November offered recommendations for a small drone registration system that could encourage participation in the system and allow it to adapt to innovations.

The report will help establish an interim final rule on registration, Huerta said. Officials expect to publish the rule in December and to put it into effect “shortly thereafter.” They will put out the final rule after collecting public comments.

Huerta established the 25-member task force on Oct. 29 to work with nine federal agencies on the report. The task force included representatives from aviation, trade, manufacturing, and law enforcement groups, as well as from major companies interested in drone use, such as Walmart, Amazon, Google and Best Buy.

The panel’s report recommended that drones as light as about half a pound be included in the new registration system. The recommended requirements were minimal: The owner’s name and street address should be required, but the drone’s serial number and the owner’s telephone number, mailing address and email address should be optional.

“We ended up with trying to write the recommendations in generic as possible a flavor,” said Dave Vos, co-chairman of the task force, who works for Google on a drone delivery project known as Google X.

Vos, speaking on a conference call shortly after the report was released, said keeping the recommendations generic enables officials to adjust the requirements to keep pace with technological advances in drones.

The group also recommended that drone owners get one registration number that they affix to all their drones instead of registering each drone individually. Registrants should be able to sign up for a registration number online and receive a registration certificate electronically. There should be no registration fee and registrants should be at least 13 years old, it said.

Recommendations Cause Upset

Aviation and drone groups have been watching the Transportation Department’s developments on registration closely. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in October the registration requirement would not involve licensing, a step the FAA doesn’t have the authority to require. He said the FAA’s safety authority allows it to require registration.

Model aircraft groups are especially concerned that a new regulatory regime could be established for small aircraft. Until now, the group has been largely self-regulated: Modelers, as they’re known, have educated each other through model airplane clubs, as well as through disseminating information about best practices and community-based standards.

Such a regulatory environment was codified in a 2012 FAA reauthorization law (PL 112-095), under a provision called the “Special Rule for Model Aircraft.” The rule specified that the FAA administrator was prohibited from issuing rules related to model aircraft if certain specifications were met, including that the devices weigh less than 55 pounds and were operated in accordance with community-based guidelines within the programming of a nationwide organization, such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the largest model aviation association in the United States.

That group took issue with the task force report and pointed to the special prohibition Congress put in place. “The task force recommendations may ultimately prove untenable by requiring the registration of smaller devices that are essentially toys and do not represent safety concerns,” said Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, in a statement after the report was released.

Mathewson said AMA wanted to include dissenting comments in the report, “but was prevented from doing so.”

“As a member of the task force, AMA agrees that registration of UAS makes sense at some level and for flyers operating outside the guidance of a community-based organization or flying for commercial purposes,” Mathewson said. “Unfortunately, as written, these recommendations would make the registration process an unnecessary and unjustified burden to our 185,000 members, who have operated harmoniously within the aviation community for decades and who register and provide their personal contact information when joining the AMA.”