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Drone Registration: A Stupid Solution in Search of a Problem It Might Actually Fix

The occasional misuse of unmanned aircraft is an exaggerated issue that won’t be corrected by bureaucrats.

The list of business people, bureaucrats, and hobbyists who will help establish federal restrictions on drone use was dropped on the public last Thursday. This came after weeks of official telegraphing by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Transportation that Something Must Be Done about the dread scourge of unmanned aircraft doing stuff that absolutely compels lawmakers to seek the nearest television camera to deliver a good finger-wagging. That stuff includes buzzing aircraft, spying on cops who thought they had a monopoly on that job, and flying close enough to the White House to get the Secret Service's panties in a bunch (the president gets to threaten people with drones; returning the favor is just not done).

Since this is the government, it's no surprise that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's insistence that "Registration will help make sure that operators know the rules and remain accountable to the public for flying their unmanned aircraft responsibly" is pointless nonsense bound to be heeded by the obedient and already responsible and defied by everybody else. It's also little surprise that the "problems" registration and restrictions are supposed to address are exaggerated to make the case for an expanded government role.

"There can be no accountability if the person breaking the rules can't be identified," Foxx scolded us all in an October 19 news conference. He presented registration of remotely operated aircraft as an educational opportunity—something that might be better done with brochures and a website, you might think, though that wouldn't offer the same opportunities for slapping around accidental transgressors whose drones actually crash.

After all, registration only works if you recover enough bits of the offending drone to identify its registration number. That's a point made by pilot and attorney Jonathan Rupprecht, who asks "If there is a crash, do you really think you are going to find the small piece of plastic that had the 'sharpie-drawn' N-number on it, the mailbox number stickers, or the serial barcode sticker under the gimbal?"

Rupprecht also asks just what is supposed to be registered in a field that has been driven by do-it-yourself innovation. "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?" He correctly likens it to the problem of gun registration, though the difficulty with drones is even greater given the prevalence of off-the-shelf components. DIYers might be required to register, but only those who don't intend to cause trouble are likely to inscribe registration numbers on their own creations no matter what the rules say.

If officials do recover a registration number amidst the scraps of a downed widget, all they may find is a boozed-up government employee whose flying toy was caught by a gust of wind. That's apparently what happened when a quadcopter got tangled in trees at the White House and made national headlines. Substitute "kite" for "drone" and it's a big nothing of a story.

Which raises an interesting question: Just how big a threat is posed by drones anyway? Yes, pilots do report being buzzed by remotely piloted devices, and FAA officials promptly publicize each incident. But when the Academy of Model Aeronautics (which is represented on the new drone registration task force) examined the FAA data in September, it found that only 3.5 percent of the agency's 764 recorded incidents were real near misses between drones and piloted aircraft, with many more "incidents" consisting of nothing more than sightings. In the serious cases, hobbyists weren't the big problem. "Some  of  the  most  serious  incidents  in  the  FAA  data--including  all  actual  crashes--involve government-authorized military drones, not civilian drones," the group reported.

Sighting of balloons and birds mistaken for drones padded out the FAA's list of dangerous happenings demanding an expanded role and, presumably, budget for its employees.

That doesn't mean that there is no pushing the envelope with drones, or outright misuse. It does mean that it's a much smaller problem than we've been led to believe.

But sometimes people do misbehave. That's been a fact of life in every area of human endeavor throughout history. Tagging and tracking the entire population in hopes of catching a few people who buzz airliners and then crash their toys is not only pointless (because deliberate bad actors won't comply with the registration process) and intrusive, it's also dangerous. That's because misbehavior has a way of becoming "misbehavior" as officials expand the definition to encompass innocent or even praiseworthy activity that pisses them off.

That includes activity such as monitoring the police with remotely piloted aircraft. The folks adding camera-equipped drones to police department arsenals may be eager to watch us, but they resent having the attention returned. Given the tendency for government to slap at its watchdogs and critics, civil liberties activists would rank prominently among those well-advised to ignore requirements to register their drones.

For safety's sake, there are alternatives to registration, including geofencing. That's a technology that sets up location-based perimeters around sensitive areas that drones are programmed to respect. It has the potential to deter problems with unmanned aircraft without recording operators' identities. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who thinks all areas of life can be divided into things that should be forbidden and those that ought to be mandatory, wants to make this particular approach a commandment. But geofencing could also be implemented on a voluntary basis by drone manufacturers and users (popular maker DJI is already onboard).

Like registration, geofencing is easily evaded by anybody unwilling to be limited. But so is every legislative protection against government officials' fears of robotic airborne assassins. As always, new rules will affect people willing to be bound by them, and those incidentally scooped up; deliberate scofflaws are generally beyond their reach.

That includes the government itself. In the course of detailing the flaws in the FAA's scheme to register privately owned drones, attorney Rupprecht points out that the federal agency appears to be in violation of legal requirements for the rulemaking process, as well as limits on its authority.

It's tempting to call for registration of federal officials to address the problem. But, as always, yet another database is unlikely to correct deliberate bad behavior.

Photo Credit: trotaparamus/flickr

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    But think of all the registration fees that can be collected. And eventual operator's licensing, with its required training courses. There's money to be made.

  • straffinrun||

    I agree with Rupprect.

  • Rockabilly||

    But stupid solution is what the government does.

  • Michael Ahlers||

  • Raven Nation||

    Great link, thanks.

  • mtrueman||

    The nice thing about drones is that they can easily be weaponized. They can threaten just about anything. Don't understand the impulse here to downplay the marvellous potential of this technology.

  • Fargo||

    For the record, UAVs are a potential threat to any aircraft, depending on their relative size. There are large UAVs and there are small commercial and private aircraft. The fact that a 5 lb. drone is not likely to bring down a 737 is of little comfort to someone flying in a Robinson R44.

  • Berha123||

    iam agree

  • Win Bear||

    Even under existing FAA rules, private use of the airspace over private property has precedence over any kind of overflight. That is, if I have a 500ft tower on my property, it's your job to stay 500ft away from it. We should apply the same principle to drones. That is, in general, we should revisit the overflight rules for general aviation, and in a conflict between drones and general aviation, general aviation should receive lower priority.

    In different words, it should be your responsibility to fly your Robinson R44 only where you know it's safe. I shouldn't have to limit the use of my private property in order to accommodate your use of my airspace.

  • Fargo||

    It's difficult to respond to this because every premise is incorrect. While it's fun to make up stuff in your head, you should probably read the FAA rules before citing them. If you want to build a 500ft tower, you will need the permission of the FAA, along with a variety of other authorities. After going through years of paperwork, you might get permission -- provided that you have good cause, and there is no airport within roughly 5 miles. When you finally receive the authorization, the FAA will mark the location of your tower on aeronautical charts and it will appear on GPS databases. THEN it's my job to stay away. If you can think of a good way to ensure that the positions of all drones appear on charts and GPS databases, then we should apply the same principle to drones. Until then, it's idiotic to compare drones to towers.

    Technically, the FAA controls all airspace (and courts have never clearly defined what, if any, you can own above your property), but permits local authorities to regulate construction of structures under 200ft... so you won't find me flying there.

  • Win Bear||

    If you want to build a 500ft tower, you will need the permission of the FAA, along with a variety of other authorities.

    No, that is incorrect. You need to notify the FAA, but the FAA cannot prohibit legitimate use of private property.

    Technically, the FAA controls all airspace (and courts have never clearly defined what, if any, you can own above your property),

    Again, that is incorrect. Private property owners own the airspace above their property. However, there is a general easement for public transit through private airspace, and that is what the FAA administers.

    It's difficult to respond to this because every premise is incorrect.

    No, it is your premise that's incorrect. You make the same incorrect assumption that many private pilots make, namely that all airspace is public. In fact, much of it is private and pilots only have transit easements.

    Furthermore, we can change the rules. Private drone use is far more important than general aviation.

  • rotorhead1871||

    you need to read the restrictions on helicopters in controlled and uncontrolled airspace...in uncontrolled...they can go most anywhere....drones would be a real midair problem.

  • Win Bear||

    Well, we can change the rules. There is little reason why helicopters or general aviation should have priority over drones.

  • Win Bear||

    Obviously, we need to require serial numbers to be tattooed on all bird! For the safety of our children!

  • Proud Infidel||

    Anthony Foxx is the Dept. of Transportation secretary. Jack Lew is the Treasury secretary.

  • ||

    Consider the problem of making an emergency rule (SFAR) to implement this registry in less than two months, bypassing the normal NPRM process. 14 CFR §91.139 - 'Emergency air traffic rules' gives the administrator the authority to make up rules "Whenever the Administrator determines that an emergency condition exists, or will exist, ". I am pretty confident that someone will challenge the validity of the emergency rule on the ground that it was issued in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act's (“APA”) notice and comment provision, 5 U.S.C. § 553(c) because no evidence of an emergency exists.

    49 USC §44101(a) does require that all aircraft be registered. The FAA has never followed the statute with model aircraft for decades, so they had plenty of time to promulgate rules through the normal NTSB process. In other words, what emergency?

    Try to imagine developing a rule to register two million model aircraft in under 60-days and try to imagine further that is will work without any problems.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    1. Register existing drones in the name of safety / security / privacy.
    2. Define specific requirements for drones, so that future designs can be certified in the name of safety / security / privacy.
    3. Require government-supervised testing of all new drone designs prior to release in the name of safety / security / privacy.

    This isn't about safety, security or privacy. It's about government control of a nascent industry in order to pick winners and losers.

  • Fargo||

    Despite my deeply rooted distrust of any incremental regulatory activity, if there was ever a role for government to impose order on chaos, this might be it. The safety of our national airspace is the envy of the world -- although it had to be inspired by several tragic accidents in the 1950s. Someone has to step up when myriad commercial interests exploit common public resources with lives on the line.

    I fly both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft -- frequently at altitudes where drones are popping up with increasing regularity. Earning the right to use our airspace required extensive training and numbing exposure to the mind-boggling labyrinth that is the FAA. I didn't mind, because the results (safe skies) spoke for themselves.

    Now I find myself on constant alert for a threat that I'm not really likely to detect before a collision. For operators of small aircraft, drones are both invisible and likely deadly. The idea that I'm sharing the same skies with operators who may be children, may be incompetent, and, most certainly, have no skin in the game is frightening, to say the least.

    Despite the inarguable appeal of small government, air safety is a rare instance where the public interest has been demonstrably and admirably served by a vast government agency. There may be better solutions -- but we don't have them yet.

  • Stephen54321||

    For safety's sake, there are alternatives to registration, including geofencing. That's a technology that sets up location-based perimeters around sensitive areas that drones are programmed to respect.

    This, of course, assumes that ALL drones not only have the requisite technology and programming, plus that that technology and programming cannot be overridden by a human operator.

    And note that by "all" I include drones of the home-built kind plus those bought overseas and brought into the US from countries which do not provide, or allow, for "geofencing".

    In other words, in order for "geofencing" to be a viable solution the US would probably have to ban home-built drones. It would probably also have to ban the importing of drones which do not have inbuilt geofencing. Moreover, in order to ensure that drones built inside the US conformed to geofencing you would need regulations setting up the rules for geofencing. Plus bureaucrats to police them. In order to keep track of lawful drone makers a registration system of some kind would probably also be required otherwise how would the government know whose drones were lawful and whose were not?

    While this would doubtless be simpler than trying to register drones themselves, it would still be another layer of bureaucracy.

    On the other hand, I note that all the millions of automobiles and motorbikes and (AFAIK) aircraft in the US are registered. So why not drones?

  • Win Bear||

    Since you can throw dangerous stuff, shouldn't we mandate registration of everything that can be thrown? I mean, just to be sure? If you can't find the rule breaker, after all, how can you hold them responsible?

  • rotorhead1871||

    you cant throw as far as these babies can fly!!!.....if you could....you may have to register your arms...

  • Win Bear||

    For safety's sake, there are alternatives to registration, including geofencing. That's a technology that sets up location-based perimeters around sensitive areas that drones are programmed to respect. It has the potential to deter problems with unmanned aircraft without recording operators' identities.

    That's even more restrictive and unworkable. A lot of drones do not, and will not, have the necessary control hardware and software. And even if they did, it would be far more intrusive than a registration number.

    The geofencing that actually works is simple: a net, water hose, shotgun, or rifle over private property. Drones are really easy to take down.

  • ||

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  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    If the commodity UAV's (or any UAV wanting to fly in the NAS) get big enough or have enough range, then the FAA will have to certify them for flying in the NAS. This is not optional and is not statist. The military UAV programs are struggling with this very issue. It's complicated and expensive to fly a robot in the NAS.

  • nayotawuy||

    Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
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  • MarisolMoore||

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,

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  • rotorhead1871||

    keeping drones out of the hands of willy nilly joe public is a good idea....the public is basically stupid in operation of these machines in the air...there is really no need for them as a toy, if there is a need...then get one and REGISTER it.

  • Win Bear||

    I think this calls for...

    Fuck off, slaver!

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