Feds: Drone operators must register

Posted at 5:47 PM, Oct 19, 2015

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. rules are about to radically
change for operators of unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones: People will have to register them, federal officials said.

The Department of Transportation took the first step Monday, by announcing formation of a task force to create a registration process. Registration could begin as soon as the holiday season, DOT officials said Monday at a Washington news conference. 

The idea is to help build a culture of accountability and responsibility among drone operators, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, said In a statement. Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta put it another way: "When they don't fly safely, they'll know there will be consequences." 

But key questions surrounding enforceability and what personal information will be required for the registry, remain unanswered. Small, rogue drones weighing less than 55 pounds have been an increasing concern among safety regulators for years. So far in 2015, pilots reported unsafe activity by unmanned aerial vehicles about 100 times a month, the FAA said. Last August, two airliners flying over the New York City area each reported passing within 100 feet of drones. Drones that fly too close to aircraft can easily be sucked into a jet engine, or crash into a cockpit window.

The registration idea is based on the premise that if people who purchase drones are required to register them, then regulators will be able to track rogue drones back to their owners. Registering drones is the "first good point" of getting to know where the drone operator is and who the drone operator is, said Foxx. But he said that's not enough. "You need a little bit more," Foxx said, because the "bad guys" certainly will not certify their drones and not have them registered.

Airline pilots said they support formation of the task force and they want to take part in how it's implemented. "We look forward to engaging in discussions with this task force..." a statement from the Air Line Pilots Association said Monday.

"We require car registration to ensure safety and accountability, and we should do the same for drones," said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts in a statement. In fact, all airplanes, helicopters and other large aircraft are required to register with the FAA. This initiative essentially would extend that requirement to drones.

Authorities also want to require existing drone owners to register retroactively. They'll have to figure out how to enforce registration among the estimated hundreds of thousands of drone operators throughout the nation. That won't be easy. Foxx said he thinks many, if not most users, will comply.

Some estimates indicate a million or more drones could be purchased this coming holiday season, according to a Helicopter Association International statement, Monday.

But some of those holiday drones could be exempt from the registration rules "due to a low safety risk, including toys and certain other small" drones, the DOT said.

The task force will be made up of "25 to 30 diverse representatives from the drone manufacturers and manned aviation industries, the federal government, and other stakeholders," said the DOT statement.

Officials also indicated the task force would "explore options for a streamlined system," for some drone operators, according to the DOT. Earlier this month, the FAA announced it's testing anti-drone technology that would detect UAVs flying within five miles of select airports. 

Drones crashed last month at two sporting events -- the U.S. Open tennis tournament and a University of Kentucky football game. No one was hurt in either incident. 

In July, five "unmanned aircraft systems" prevented California firefighters from dispatching helicopters with water buckets for up to 20 minutes over a wildfire that roared onto a Los Angeles-area freeway, burning out cars. Helicopters couldn't drop water because the five drones hovered over the blaze. Unmanned aircraft systems are neither supposed to fly within five miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator and control tower nor are they supposed to go above 400 feet.

The FAA is currently writing new rules for small drone operators, which it says may be complete by next year. In the meantime, the FAA has issued more than 1,000 temporary exemptions to individual drone operators. The FAA missed its deadline for those rules last month, and aviation groups are urging officials to hurry up.