The US government will soon require tech enthusiasts to register their drones with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to crack down on reckless flying.
The DOT, which supervises the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still needs to figure out the specifics of, including which drones will be included, how users will register the devices, and whether the policy will apply to devices that have already been sold. The DOT hopes to have the registration process up and running by Christmas 2015.
US regulators have been scrambling to regulate drones as they become more popular. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the “Consumer Drone Safety Act” requires “that a consumer drone be detectable and identifiable to pilots and air traffic controllers, including through the use of an identification number and a transponder or similar technology to convey the drone’s location and altitude[.]”
Moreover, Cory Booker’s Commercial UAS Modernization Act prohibits the operations of commercial small unmanned aircraft “unless the owner has registered the aircraft under section 3(a) of the Commercial UAS Modernization Act.”
This presents interesting problems, so let’s dive into the facts.
Proposed Regulations and Forecasted Sales
Bloomberg indicated that “Amazon is selling more than 10,000 drones a month[.]” 3DR “is expected to top $40 million in sales in 2015, which would roughly translate to about 53,000 units” and in 2014, “DJI sold about 400,000 units-many of which were its signature Phantom model-and is on track to do more than $1 billion in sales this year, up from $500 million in 2014.”
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Oklahoma City is where aircraft registration gets processed. The aircraft registration process still involves carbon copy forms, which must be filled out perfectly and sent in for an aircraft to be registered. They are extremely, I mean extremely, picky on registration based upon my experience. (If you need help with registration, contact me.)
If the paperwork is completed correctly, they will send you back an “N” registration which is required to be displayed on the aircraft. The reason for the “N” is the aircraft is tied to the country it operates in. (Think of license plates where the state is listed on the plate.) N = United States, C or CF = Canada, XA, XB, or XC = Mexico, B= China, JA= Japan, SU= Egypt, etc. The complete list is here at 4-1-1. So N12345 is a U.S. registered aircraft while XA12345 is a Mexican registered aircraft.
On top of the drone sales, manned aircraft have been sold and already use some of the N numbers. For 2012, it was estimated that there were 209,034 aircraft in general aviation.
Let’s get into the math. Let’s assume that all drones have to be registered. How many different combinations are possible?
“All U.S. civil aircraft registration numbers are prefixed by an N. The registration number, apart from the N prefix, is made up of one to five symbols, the last two of which may be alphabetical. This alphabetical suffix must be preceded by at least one numerical symbol. The lowest possible number is N1. A zero never precedes the first number. For example: N1 through N99999, all symbols are numeric. N1A through N9999Z, single alphabetical suffix. N1AA through N999ZZ, double alphabetical suffix. Note: To avoid confusion with the numbers zero and one, the letters O and I are never used as alphabetical suffixes.”
This is how the math works out: 10 x 10 x 10 x 34 x 34 = 1,156,000. The reason for the 34 is 10 numbers + 25 letters. The letters I and O cannot be used because they can be confused with the numbers 1 and 0. Further compounding this problem is “A Certificate of Aircraft Registration issued under this paragraph expires three years after the last day of the month in which it is issued.” 14 CFR 47.40(a)(3).
Moreover, it is easier to register a drone than transfer registration. If you crash the drone, you’ll have crazy headaches trying to transfer registration of the N-number to the new drone as opposed to just registering a new N number. Here are some of the problems I see with mandatory drone registration.
Problem 1: Not Enough N Numbers
At this pace, we are going to run out of N numbers in the future. Here are a few proposed solutions:
- Open up the first 3 spaces to allow also the use of letters. This will increase the availability of the numbers by 44,279,424 spaces!
- Require re-registration of a drone every year.
- Make the N number registration transfer easy so people just don’t keep registering drones.
- Tie the N number registration of the drone to a person as opposed to the aircraft. That way you could have one N number put on multiple aircraft. This could work similarly to your car insurance policy number listing multiple vehicles.
- Add an additional 6th space or 7th
Problem 2: What Happens When You Don’t Want to Fly Anymore?
So the citizen has to register his drone. The drone registration last for three years under the current regulations. Are you going to force people to re-register their drones? Must they always have the drone registered? I can see a large group of people just letting the registration lapse and then selling their drones off on Amazon, Ebay, Craiglist, flea markets, and garage sales. Are the sellers required to keep paperwork of who they sold the drone to?
Why Geofencing is Better than Registration
Geofencing will produce far better results by preventing problems as opposed to pointing to who might have done it after something has happened. The uneducated new recreational flyers are the ones I believe causing the problems.
Having manufacturers voluntarily “lock” the drones until an unlock access code is provided after an introductory ground school would produce better results. One way to sweeten the pot is not just provide “how to fly safely” video tutorials but also “how to get that awesome shot” tutorials. Education, not enforcement is a better strategy.
Problem 3: What in the World Does the FAA and/or DOT Even Regulate?
This problem is exactly like gun registration. The lower receiver is what is considered the “gun” and that is what is regulated federally. All the other gun parts you can buy and sell without registration. What is going to be considered the “aircraft” for purposes of drones? The batteries, the motors, the transmitter, the flight controller? Is it only a whole aircraft? Are drone kits regulated or just fully assembled drones?
14 C.F.R 1.1 says, “Aircraft means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.” To be logically consistent, only a WHOLE or COMPLETE aircraft can meet this criteria.
Problem 4: What is a Drone for Purposes of Registration?
My Cheerson CX-10 can fit in my hand. Are we going to regulate all nanodrones? The paper airplane drone? Is there a weight or operational cutoff?
Problem 5: How Will Drones be Identified?
A drone sucked in a jet engine is going to be all over the place. Are you going to require metal placards attached to the drone? Furthermore, it is easy to scratch off a serial number. Is possession of a drone with a scratched off serial number going to become illegal?
Problem 6: How Will Drone Registration Actually Prevent Reckless Flying?
The two main groups that are causing problems are the (1) “how high can it fly” group and the (2) “I will fly wherever I want” group. Both of these groups can be countered with geo-fencing far better than registration. Registration points you to who might have caused the incident, geo-fencing can help prevent it.
Problem 7: How Does the DOT or FAA Have Authority to Require Drones on the Ground to be Registered?
I understand that once the drone leaves the store, comes out of the box, goes out of the house, and then gets a smidge off the ground, then the FAA can argue jurisdiction, but how can it argue jurisdiction anywhere before? (For a more in-depth discussion on the topic of the FAA’s jurisdiction, see my book Drones: Their Many Civilian Uses and the U.S. Laws Surrounding Them)