By now, we have all heard about the surprising news from the Department of Transportation that they intend to set up a system for mandatory registration of hobbyist UAS, more commonly known as “model aircraft.” The DOT’s press release was short on details of the new program, such as who will be required to register, what types of model aircraft will fall under the new system, and how the registration will be performed.
It turns out that the reason those details were missing is because the DOT has not actually decided any of these questions. In fact, the DOT is now soliciting comments from the public on how the system should be set up. Giving the DOT the benefit of your views is incredibly easy. If you want to have your say on this important matter, all you have to do is click on this link, which takes you to Regulations.gov. Once you are on that page, click on the blue button in the upper right hand corner that says “Comment Now!” Then just type your comments in the box and then submit them electronically.
So, what issues does the DOT want input on? Basically everything. The DOT recognizes that the current paper-based registration system it is using for commercial UAS is not up to the task of registering hundreds of thousands of model aircraft. As a result, they need to decide what type of electronic system needs to be set up. Beyond just the mechanics of setting up a system, there are a lot of real-world problems that will have to be worked out. For example, since many model aircraft do not have serial numbers, how will the owner be matched with the vehicle? If the registration is done at point of sale, but the UAS is a gift, how will the registration be transferred and whose responsibility will it be? If a model aircraft is “kit built,” which component’s serial number will identify the aircraft, and what happens if that component is swapped out for a new one with a different number? How much information should the DOT collect? Should it be addresses, social security numbers, and/or driver’s license numbers, and does this mean that any time a person who owns a model aircraft moves, he has to tell the DOT? Once the DOT has this information, how much of it will be available to the general public?
The request for comment does not, however, ask for input on the most problematic issue: how will the new registration requirement be enforced. The DOT states that its authority to require registration comes from the same statutes that apply to registration of manned aircraft. Under 49 USC § 46306, any person who “knowingly and willfully operates or attempts to operate an aircraft” that is unregistered is subject to a large fine and up to 3 years in prison. This is a substantial hammer to use to threaten those who don’t comply, but if it becomes known that this is the penalty for failing to keep up with the registration requirements for what most consumers consider a toy, how many will not want anything to do with model aircraft?
In the time it took to write this post, the number of comments submitted to Regulations.gov went from 4 to 18, and the quality of the comments is good. By the time the comment period closes, it will probably be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Given how easy the government has made it for you to give your feedback, there is no excuse for not getting involved and having your voice heard. But be warned, the clock is ticking, and the comment period will close in the next 15 days.
(Originally posted October 21, 2015)