Many kids — and kids at heart — this week found an unmanned aircraft system under the holiday tree. That’s government-speak for a drone. Before they rush outside to take flight, however, they must register with the Federal Aviation Administration or face stiff fines.
The FAA rushed to enact its drone registration rules in time for the holidays, and it shows. The basic idea is sound, but the system could use some tweaks.
The need for registration became evident when some people started flying drones irresponsibly. Operators flew them too close to manned aircraft, around national monuments and near firefighters combating western wildfires.
Catching those people is difficult because a drone can be operated from a good distance away. Even if it crashes and is recovered, law enforcement usually doesn’t have much to go on.
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So like with other potentially dangerous things — well, not guns, obviously, but things like cars — the government now requires people to register.
The FAA registration, which launched on Monday, applies to people flying drones that weigh 0.55 to 55 pounds. Owners must provide their name, physical address and email address. They’ll pay $5 for the privilege, and in return, they will receive a registration number that they must put on their drones.
Drone technology has evolved quickly, and the ease of consumer access took most by surprise. The FAA scrambled to catch up, enacting rules in just a few months. With a million drones expected to be bought this holiday season, the need for speed was clear. Yet, hurried federal policies rarely turn out perfect.
For example, the expert committee was stacked with regulators and business interests. Noticeably missing was anyone to advocate for civil liberties. A skeptical perspective might have convinced regulators to lighten up on registering kids — anyone 13 years old or older is subject to the rules — or to include rules prohibiting people from invading their neighbor’s privacy by filming their backyard.
There’s also plenty of concern among drone owners that the registry will be publicly searchable. Anyone can check a registration number to find the name and address of a registrant, though not the email address.
Such is the price of accountability. Whenever the government jumps into this sort of record-keeping, transparency is essential as a bulwark against abuse. But we note again that teens must register, so the home addresses of kids will become public.
A simple amendment to address some of those concerns would be to require that parents or guardians register for their kids. The FAA also should reconsider its $5 fee, which serves as a disincentive to what amounts to voluntary registration.
Officials might also want to clarify the lines between federal and local jurisdiction in the sky. Already some states and localities are adopting drone rules. In Ashland, Mo., for example, city officials have imposed rules, including a seemingly arbitrary height limit. Under federal rules, drones may fly no higher than 400 feet. In Ashland, the cap is 130 feet … because that’s about how tall the city’s water tower is. The last thing America needs is a patchwork of conflicting drone rules.
The FAA’s registration system is workable but should not be considered done.