May 2017 update:  The FAA recently changed their regulations for small drones and removed many registration requirements.  You no longer need to register your drone if you are flying for personal use.  If you previously registered with the FAA, here is some information about requesting a refund.  We are going to keep the previous article for posterity. 

You can find a more up to date list of regulations, license requirements, and insurance questions here!

Feel free to read on if you want!

Probably not, but you could do it to be on the safe side.

(Just to be clear, we are not legal professionals. This article outlines our thoughts and opinions. Be sure to read below for James’ thoughts as well.)

I’m assuming here that if you’re reading this article, you’re probably already aware about the drone registration program that the FAA started. However if you aren’t familiar with it, the gist of it is that anyone (13 years or older and a US citizen) who is operating a drone (small unmanned aircraft) that weighs between 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and 55 pounds (25 kilograms) would need to register themselves with the FAA. Hey! I see what you did there FAA. Clever.

The idea is that you could register yourself as a pilot of small drones with the FAA and then it’d be easier to track pilots flying around with their drones. The FAA can have insight into what people are doing and can track drones back to their owners. The next time someone crashes their DJI Phantom onto the lawn of the White House, the FAA can know who it is!

Many pilots were anticipating a registration act to come and it was a matter of waiting for it to happen. Most people embraced it and understood that it would lead to more responsible flying and could help the industry grow. Nothing is worse than for a few individuals to ruin everything by doing something reckless and thinking they can get away with it.

There was of course some pushback against the registration. Some people felt that it was a pointless effort and that many people would not register or that it ultimately would do little to even regulate drones.

ama logoOne of the largest hobby groups, the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) held off on a stance regarding the registration for a very long time. Many hobbyists and model aviators rely on the AMA for their leadership and in understanding regulations. As an organization, they are against the registration, but understand the need to comply with government regulations. They are continuing their efforts in reducing the necessity of the FAA registration in addition to their own AMA registration.

One of the largest problems many people had with the registration was a public database that is accessible to anyone. Currently no such database is available for people to look through, but we do know that the FAA has previous registration information publically available. Many are speculating that registering to the sUAS pilot database will eventually put their registration information to become publically available.

What does this mean for us? The small guys. We just wanna fly sweet minicopters with FPV goggles. We want to do gravity flips and barrel rolls. Do us guys need to register our tiny, harmless minicopters?

Probably not. There are a lot of quadcopter pilots who are not registering. Are the police going to come bust down your door and ask to see your FAA pilot’s registration? Not any time soon. Are you legally required to register? Yes.

What!

I do not like this.

Unfortunately it’s very unclear from what you read online. According to the FAA, yes you definitely have to if your drones meet the specifications listed by the FAA. Reading the FAA requirements, there’s no question. Register or face “regulatory and criminal sanctions.” If the FAA so chose to, they could fine you hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So what’s the final verdict? Do I head over and register now? Do I wait and see if there are changes in the registration rules? What is a casual hobbyist to do? Register yourself with the FAA, pay the $5 for three years, throw some numbers on your craft, and move on with life.

What about the hundreds and thousands of people who have idea about this registration and won’t ever do it? Or those people who are well aware of the registration requirement but choose not to? While I am not a legal advisor in any way, it’s really unclear what could happen. Most likely the only time any fines would be assessed against a pilot is if they were doing something illegal or reckless. For the majority of pilots, flying in an empty park or out in the wilderness, we’re not really hurting anyone so what’s the big deal?

This is a really interesting battle taking place behind the scenes and it’ll be really interesting to see how things change as time goes on. I can’t say I’ve ever walked into a big-box retail store and had someone tell me to register my drone if I buy a Phantom. The information just isn’t out there for the public and there aren’t going to be good ways to regulate the registration of it. It’s a very tricky situation that’s fun to discuss with friends. 🙂

James’ thoughts:

As a pilot and plane owner, I have a lot of experience dealing with the FAA. Make no mistake: this is an organization that is eternally stuck 30 years in the past. There is a reason they have been given 5 years to write up some new regulations governing drone use and have failed to yet: they simply do not have the manpower and willingness to write or enforce new rules.

A little known fact is how much of aviation is self regulated. The FAA employs a “police force” from centers called “Flight Standards District Offices”, or FiSDOs, which occasionally patrol around airports looking for violations and respond to complaints from the public. These FiSDOs are very sparsely located and are always understaffed. Try to get an appointment at one – in many urban locations you will be looking at a month or more of wait time. And you thought the DMV was bad.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you value your privacy or have other reasons for not registering your drones, just don’t do it. There is no FAA boogeyman out there that will come to “get you”. The organization is simply too inept and understaffed to ever be able to field an effort like enforcement of drone registration.

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