Ho-Ho-Hold On. Did You Register the Drone that Santa Brought?

December 2015

In a recent media release, the North Pole’s public relations office responded to the public’s questions regarding new FAA registration requirements for drones which are anticipated to be delivered during the upcoming holiday season. The statement reads, “[a]fter consultation with Santa, taking into consideration current elf workloads and the late nature of this new development, the North Pole regrettably wishes to inform the public that any drone which arrives to any good girl or boy this holiday season will need to be registered with the FAA by the recipient. We finally got around to including batteries with most of our toys, what more can you really expect?”

In case you are not aware, in order to provide the FAA and the public the ability to determine the identity of the operator of a UAS, the FAA recently announced that starting December 21, 2015, all small UAS platforms (less than 55 but greater than .55 pounds), whether used for hobby and recreational purposes or for commercial operations, will require a form of registration with the FAA. There are multiple types of UAS operators and the FAA has made a corresponding number of different deadlines and requirements for those operators.  If you currently own or are eagerly anticipating the arrival of a UAS, a summary of the requirements for the category that you belong to follows:

For hobby and recreational operators who will operate their UAS exclusively for non-commercial purposes, the operator must log-on to the web-based system and register as an operator.  This will require providing a name, physical address and email address along with a $5 registration fee. You will receive an operator registration number. All UAS used exclusively for hobby and recreational uses will need to display the operator’s registration number assigned to the operator. At this time, you will not be required to list the UAS you own, and the operator’s number you will receive will be the same for all your UAS markings; however, the FAA has indicated that may be subject to change in the future.

For any UAS user who is not solely a hobby or recreational operator, the following must be provided: a name, physical address and email address, along with UAS details including make, model and serial number. Each UAS will receive a different registration number which will need to be displayed on the UAS prior to outdoor operations. This category includes anyone who has received a Section 333 exemption or any public agency authorized by the FAA to utilize a UAS.  Each UAS registration will be subject to a $5 registration fee. In the event you have already registered your UAS using the Part 47 paper registration process, you will not be required to re-register your UAS until the renewal period arrives as detailed below.

The deadline for complying with the new requirements is December 21, 2015 for any hobby or recreational UAS which has not already been operated.  So, if you receive a UAS from Santa on December 25, you will need to register as an operator and properly mark the UAS prior to any outdoor flights. If you are already operating a UAS exclusively for hobby and recreational purposes, you have a grace period until February 19, 2016 to register as an operator and properly mark the UAS. All non-hobby and recreational users operating under a Section 333 or other FAA authorized approvals will continue to utilize the paper registration process until March 31, 2016 at which time they can elect to utilize the new web-based registration system in lieu of the cumbersome Part 47 paper registration process.

So, what about those good girls and boys who received drones from Santa? The FAA is requiring all operators ages 13 and up to register. Any operators under the age of 13 will need a parent or guardian to register on their behalf. As not many 13 year olds have a credit card for payment of the registration fee, the FAA has indicated that a parent or guardian may make that payment on their behalf. Please note that providing an email address is not optional – the FAA has indicated it will utilize the email addresses to facilitate providing operators with UAS safety related educational materials. We surmise that a parent’s email address may be used in the event that, like a credit card, an under-aged operator does not have an email address.

In order to entice UAS operators into registering, the FAA has stated it will waive or refund the $5 registration fee for registrations completed before January 20, 2016. However, the registration fee is not simply a one-time payment. For hobby and recreational operators, the operator’s registration is required to be renewed and will incur a $5 renewal fee every three years.  For non-hobby and recreational users, the registration of each individual UAS will need to be renewed every three years and will likewise incur the $5 renewal fee.

While you may be thinking that this is no big deal, the FAA has not introduced a separate fine structure for UAS registration infractions. This means that the failure to register a UAS prior to outdoor operations subjects the operator to the same penalty as someone who flew a manned aircraft without proper registration. As you might guess, this is not insignificant. Failure to register an aircraft can result in civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties can include fines up to $250,000 under 18 U.S.C. 3571 and/or imprisonment up to three years under 49 U.S.C. 46306.

It should be noted that this new registration requirement does not eliminate the necessity for any UAS operator who intends to use UAS in commercial activities to file for and receive a Section 333 exemption prior to commencing any operations. In addition, there are various other complexities which the FAA has also addressed.  For example, what is required for UAS which are owned in trusts or operations by non-U.S. citizens and what must be done if a UAS is sold by an operator. Finally, there may also be state specific requirements that apply to you or your UAS operation. For example, Minnesota requires insurance coverage, registration of the UAS and a commercial operator’s license for all commercial UAS operations. Be sure to consult your state’s regulations for more details.

So before you don your coat and hat and head outside in hopes of catching aerial footage of Santa with your DJI Phantom, beware you must register with the FAA. For any questions you may have regarding UAS registration or assistance in obtaining commercial operating permits for you or your company, please contact Fafinski Mark & Johnson.

Garrett Caffee is an attorney at FMJ in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Aviation practice groups where he concentrates in the areas of commercial and private aviation, purchase, sale, finance and leasing, as well as cross-border transactions.