There are likely half a million small drones or more in the hands of law-abiding hobbyists, based on the latest registration data from the FAA. The agency reported on Feb. 16 that 342,000 owners have registered their noncommercial aircraft weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds through the registration portal created for hobbyists, and that number is likely well short of the total number of unmanned aircraft matching that description, since each owner registers just once for any number of aircraft.
The FAA launched the registration program in December, giving early adopters a free pass on the $5 fee, which covers any number of aircraft for each individual owner. The new registration system was created in large part to educate hobbyists, many of whom are new to unmanned aviation, “and it will help you become part of the safety culture that has been the hallmark of traditional aviation for more than a century,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in the Feb. 16 news release.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics sent an email to members the same day to remind them of the looming deadline. AMA had suggested in December that its members hold off on registration, noting there are various legal challenges in progress, but has supported the FAA registration requirement publicly more recently. Perhaps not coincidentally, the FAA this month lifted a restriction it had imposed through an advisory circular updated in September (with a reminder issued in December) that grounded more than a dozen AMA clubs, and dozens of AMA members who had been flying within the outer ring of the Washington, D.C., Special Flight Rules Area. Litigation related to FAA regulation of drones, including registration and other restrictions, remains before the nation’s second-highest court, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
The AMA and AOPA were among the first to support the FAA’s Know Before You Fly campaign, which seeks to educate small aircraft hobbyists (who in many cases lack pilot training or certificates) about airspace, airports, and where it is unsafe to fly (above 400 feet agl, to name one restriction that is not among those being challenged).
The FAA has cited estimates that more than 1 million small drones have been sold in the United States, though hard data is difficult to find. Critics have accused the FAA of fear mongering, noting that there has not yet been a reported accident involving manned and unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System (a record that safety advocates including AOPA are keen to preserve). The AMA and others took issue with the FAA’s reports in 2014 and 2015 that documented thousands of reports of drones being spotted in proximity to airports and aircraft, noting that only a small percentage of those reports, the text of which the FAA released without analysis, suggest an actual risk of collision.
The FAA noted in its Feb. 16 reminder that penalties for failure to comply with the hobbyist drone registration requirement can be far more expensive than a quadcopter: They include a civil penalty of up to $27,500, a criminal fine of up to $250,000, and imprisonment up to three years. The FAA can pursue these various penalties in combination.
AOPA is committed to safe integration of manned and unmanned aircraft, and supports a collaborative approach to safety. Learn more about AOPA’s position here, and keep up with the latest drone-related content on AOPA Online here.