Owners of toy drones are required to register the drones with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as of December 21, 2015. Online registration is available (Registration Link )(PDF application here). With a registration fee of $5.00, FAA registration requires the drone operator’s name, home address and email address. The registration is valid for three (3) years. The process results in a certification an a unique identification number which must be posted or placed on the drone. If you do not register the drone, whether a toy or not, the FAA can access a civil monetary penalty of over $20,000 or pursue criminal penalties which includes up to three (3) years in jail.
U.S. law provides that the FAA may require registration of aircraft in certain circumstances. 49 U.S.C. Section 44101. In October 2015, the FAA published Clarification of the Applicability of Aircraft Registration Requirements for Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) and Requested Information Regarding Electronic Registration See 2015 Federal Register. (pdf available here)
As background, the FAA states that it has the ability to control the national air space (NAS). For example, NAS includes the airspace above and about U.S. airports. Regulatory requirements by the FAA insures that drone operators become aware of the NAS system and the airspace used by the drone such that the FAA has means to identify and track the drone, which is classified as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). The FAA notes that airline pilot have reported UAS sightings in 2015 are double the rate of 2014. Pilots have seen drones at altitudes up to 10,000 feet and as close as close as 0.5 miles airplane runways. Although the FAA notes that only a small percentage of these close-call drone sightings have resulted in enforcement actions, it was important to identify the individual responsible for the operation of the drone and this is difficult without a registration system.
The current 2015 holiday sales of drones is expected to greatly accelerate the potential for intrusion into FAA controlled national air space (NAS). The FAA enabling statute, 49 U.S.C. 40102(a)(6) defines an “unmanned aircraft” as an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct intervention from within or on the aircraft and a “model aircraft” is defined as an unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere, flown within the visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft, and flown for hobby or recreational purposes. In a proposed rule making effort, the FAA issued an interpretation of the special rule for model UAS aircraft, 14 C.F.R. 91 on June 18, 2014. 2014 FFA Interpretation (pdf available here).
In this 2014 document, the FAA outlines the statutory requirements permitting the FAA to regulate toy drones. Further, the FAA provides that “based upon the plane language of the Statute, the FAA interprets this requirement for model aircraft to mean that (1) the aircraft must be visible at all times to the operator; (2) the operator must use his or her own natural vision (which includes vision corrected by standard eye glasses or contact lenses) to observe the aircraft; and (3) people other than the operator may not be used in lieu of the operator for maintaining visual line of sight.” The use of vision enhancing devices such as binoculars or night vision gargles is not permitted under the UAS Rules.
Further, the FAA makes clear that the model aircraft drone must be flown within visual sight of the person operating the aircraft. Therefore, any efforts to augment that vision are not permitted. For example, cameras used on drones cannot be used to fly the drone unless the drone is within the visual line of sight of the person operating the UAS.
Also, the FAA’s interpretation of the statute requires that the model drone aircraft or UAS be flown strictly for hobby or recreational purposes. Any use of a drone for business or incidental to a person’s business is not considered a hobby or recreational flight. Examples are listed in the FAA documents. Examples of permitted and not permitted UAS flights follow:
(A) Flying a model drone or UAS aircraft at the local model aircraft club (permitted); receiving money for demonstrating aerobatics with a model aircraft (not permitted);
(B) Taking photographs with a model aircraft for personal use (permitted); a realtor using a model aircraft to photograph a property that he is trying to sell and using the photos in the property’s real estate listing (not permitted); a person photographing a property or event and selling the photos to someone else (not permitted);
(C) Using a model aircraft to move a box from point to point without any kind of compensation (permitted); delivering packages to people for a fee (not permitted);
(D) Viewing a field to determine whether crops need water when they are grown for personal enjoyment (permitted); determining whether crops need to be watered that are grown as part of commercial farming operation (not permitted).
There are five additional criteria within the definition of “model aircraft.” First, the model aircraft must be operating within a community-based safety guidelines and within programming of a nationwide community-based organization. Second, the model aircraft for drones are limited to 55 pounds fully loaded with other equipment and payload of fuel. Third, the UAS or drone aircraft must be certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test and a safety program administered by a community-based organization. Fourth, the UAS model drone aircraft must not interfere with and must give way to any manned aircraft. Fifth, the model aircraft cannot be operated within 5 miles of an airport and, if used within that 5 mile range, the operator must notify the airport operator and control tower.
It should be noted that commercial aircraft and unmanned drones are subject to different registration rules (commercial rules) which are not discussed here.
The FAA’s Interpretation document indicates that if the model aircraft is operated consistently with the terms of the FAA Section 336(a) and (c), then it is not subject to FAA regulations regarding model aircraft. As for an enforcement mechanism, the FAA reports that it regulates low altitude operations to protect people and property on the ground. The FAA permits aircraft operation below 500 feet when flown over open water or in sparsely populated areas. Such operations may not be conducted closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure.
The FAA rules relevant to the operation of drones generally fall into three categories (1) how the aircraft is operated; (2) operating rules for designated airspace for the drones; and (3) special restrictions such as temporary flight restrictions notices to drone operators.