Drone regulation — which has long moved at a tortoise pace — is shifting into warp speed with the news of a task force to advise on how to create a national registry for recreational drones.
The group will have a grand total of 32 days. The quick turnaround creates the chance to potentially register the thousands of drones that will appear under Christmas trees.
“To get that done in a month, we don’t see agencies moving that quickly that often,” said Anne Swanson, an attorney dealing with drones in Cooley’s regulatory practice. “I really think it was a political necessity. I think there had been enough incidents and enough concern about the number purchased around Christmas.”
Pilots have increasingly reported sightings of drones. But questions linger about how effective a registry would be at curbing and prosecuting their reckless use. An unregistered drone could be bought second-hand. Or someone could order parts and assemble his or her own drone.
“We identify the drone, we collect the information on the drone and the drone is cross-checked against the national registry,” Anthony Foxx, the secretary of the department of transportation, said in describing the framework Monday. There will be penalties for those who don’t register.
On the surface, creating a drone registry seems simple enough. After all, the FAA already has businesses with permission to fly registering their drones. A registration number is displayed on their drones. But creating a registry that allows the government to track down a rogue hobbyist in all circumstances adds many degrees of difficulty.
Identifying a drone isn’t always easy, especially if it isn’t caught.
“Actually reading a number on a small drone I think would be very difficult,” said Capt. Rodd Mascis, a spokesman for the San Bernardino City fire department, which has had four incidents this year in which its aircraft were grounded for safety concerns until a drone vacated an area. In all four of those incidents officials were unable to collect the drone. Even if a national registry existed, it would likely not be helpful. Still, Mascis welcomed the news as a step in the right direction given the current “free for all.”
“I don’t think this is an issue that can be regulated into submission. I think ultimately it just comes down to simple common sense. People understanding that these machines can be dangerous and operating them accordingly,” said Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of a book on air travel. “It’s good in that the registry discussion raises awareness.”
An individual who is set on doing something dangerous with a drone is unlikely to be thwarted by a registry.
Todd Curtis of AirSafe.com and a former Boeing engineer added that the registry might not even slow down delivery of a drone. “It would just put a small roadblock between themselves and getting their hands on a drone,” he said.
It’s unclear if existing drone owners will register. Additionally, the registry would likely only be useful if a rogue drone is observed in close proximity so that its registration number can be obtained. An aircraft pilot who spotted a drone near an airport might struggle to read and report a registration number printed on a small drone.
Having a drone registered also might prove worthless in the nightmare scenario — in which a large drone crashes into an aircraft or its engine. The drone could be destroyed in the collision, complicating the process of tracking down the owner. Drones do not come with black boxes.
On Monday, Foxx stressed that finding a drone has been less of a problem than finding the person flying a drone. For hobbyists who register their drones and crash them somewhere, it would indeed be easy to track down the drone pilot, provided the drone hadn’t been resold. But the experiences in San Bernardino indicate that’s not always the case, as problematic drones flew away, never to be seen again.
For drones to be tracked and identified in all situations would require a much more complex system, in which transponders on all drones report their position to a central authority, as happens with manned aircraft.
Now Foxx and his team have 32 days to get the details right.