Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) formally announced their intention to require all U.S. unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operators to register their aircraft before flying in national airspace.

“It’s really hard to follow rules if you don’t know what the rules are – or that the rules apply to you,” stated Anthony Foxx, U.S. secretary of transportation, at a press conference. “Registration gives operators the opportunity to learn the airspace rules before they fly and enjoy their devices safely.”

In turn, he said, while the number of reckless operations can decrease, the enforcement against reckless operators can be more easily achieved.

Standing by Foxx were representatives from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the Air Line Pilots Association, AirMap, the American Association of Airport Executives, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Helicopter Association International, and PrecisionHawk.

According to a DOT press release, a task force comprising 25-30 “diverse representatives from the UAS and manned aviation industries, the federal government, and other stakeholders” will be charged with creating the specifics of a registration process. Their recommendations will be wrapped up by Nov. 20, and the rules should be finalized by mid-December, said Foxx.

“The group will advise the [DOT] on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk, including toys and certain other small UAS.  The task force also will explore options for a streamlined system that would make registration less burdensome for commercial UAS operators,” the release says.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who said that the task force will meet “as often as they need to” within the next month, emphasized that this initiative is a joint effort with law enforcement.

“The important thing we’re doing today is establishing what the rules are – and the rules are we’re expecting you to be registered if you operate within the national airspace system,” he said.

Then, Huerta explained, a “template” is created that says you cannot operate without proper registration. Thus, “That provides a basis to go after you with our law enforcement partners,” he said.

When asked what exactly this registration will be like, Foxx replied that the intention is to create a system that is “as user-friendly as possible.”

“Clearly identifiable information that helps us point back to the user is going to be critical,” he explained.

Many other questions at the press conference centered on how the FAA and DOT will enforce registration: “Are you going to send the drone police after people?” said one attendee.

Foxx responded, “The signal we’re sending today is that when you enter the national airspace, it’s a very serious matter. This isn’t riding your ATV on your own property; this is going into the space where other users are also occupying that space, and it is a matter of responsibility that we will take seriously. And, again, there are penalties that are associated with the failure to do so.”

He also remained bullish on the likelihood of users’ compliance with the new rules.

“I think many, if not most users, will comply because of the attention we are giving to this issue,” he said, adding that, if not, there will be enforcement action against them.

As for users who already have UAS, the task force will need to examine how to proceed, but Foxx said he expects “retroactive registration,” which may include a grace period for these operators.

Regarding the registration of hobbyist drones, Foxx clarified that these new rules apply to them, as well. A press conference attendee pointed out that, according to the current FAA reauthorization bill, the FAA cannot regulate non-commercial users.

Foxx explained, indeed, the agency will still not require hobbyists to have a license to fly.

“But when it comes to registration, this is a safety authority the FAA has, and it’s one we’re exercising,” he said.

Both Huerta and Foxx maintained that the task force’s effort will in no way delay the finalization of the rules for small UAS, which the FAA has said on a number of occasions will be out by next June.

Foxx admitted that there is much work to be done in terms of safe UAS integration into national airspace – and this announcement is just one step.

“This is not the whole solution. This is just a part of it,” he said. “And the task force will be charged with answering a number of critical questions.”

He continued, “But clarifying that federal law requires the registration of all aircraft, including unmanned aircraft, is essential to ensuring accountability and is an important part of our ongoing vigilance on this issue.”

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