Quick Thoughts on FAA’s Proposed Drone Registration System

by on October 19, 2015 · 1 comment

DroneToday, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it will soon require Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or private drones, used for both personal and commercial purposes, to be registered in a national database. To facilitate this process, the agencies announced the creation of a new federal task force that will develop recommendations for a UAS registration process. Rules are to be published by November 20th (presumably to cover new devices sold before Christmas).

Here are some quick initial reactions on the proposed registration rules:

  • The FAA is a creating a ‘show-us-your-papers’ regulatory regime for average Americans who own drones. Forcing all of us to register our devices with the authorities in a national drone owner’s database raises clear civil liberties concerns.
  • Americans are generally opposed to the idea of registering their technologies and a ‘DMV for Drones,’ which isn’t likely to be run any more efficiently than existing government registration systems.
  • Moreover, by demanding that all drones be registered, the FAA is opening the door to a potentially far greater regulatory threat since drones are, in essence, flying computers. We don’t have federal registration systems for computers or cameras, and we shouldn’t have such a regulatory regime for private drones.
  • It’s not unclear how the agency plans to enforce against existing users, but in response to a question at the press conference announcing the new rules, the head of the DOT said that the task force would determine how to enforce registration retroactively for existing drone owners. So apparently they will be brought under the new rules.
  • Mandatory registration of all drones also might raise some First Amendment-related issues for journalists, too, depending on how the FAA enforces its regulations. A government drone database could intimidate reporters (or potentially even private individuals and organizations) and make it harder for them to engage in whistle-blowing activities with the aid of drones.
  • Because of these problems, I would not be surprised if the FAA’s new drone registration regime leads to a rise in acts of technological civil disobedience among average Americans, many of whom will actively oppose such heavy-handed tactics and the creation of yet-another federal database of their private information.
  • Of course, it could be that the FAA handles objections by creating a long list of carve-outs and exemptions from the new database requirements. In fact, in the press release announcing the formation of the task force, the agency said that the task force “will advise the Department on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk, including toys and certain other small UAS.” That could take some of the pressure off, but only by creating an even more convoluted regulatory regime.
  • Finally, as an administrative matter, the way the FAA to pushing hard to ram this all through before Christmas has led them to believe that they can just skirt the law in the process. As Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes, the agency “will likely be in violation of two different federal laws: the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and the Administrative Procedure Act.” Read Marc’s full post for the details, but in a nutshell, the FAA cannot simply throw out standard operating procedures in terms of federal rule-making guidelines simply because they wish to suggest that there is some sort of imminent threat to public safety here. The real danger comes not from unregistered drones, but lawmakers and regulators who believe they can suspend the rule of law and ignore administrative accountability when it suits their desires.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has published several reports and agency filings discussing the problems associated with the regulation of private and commercial drones. Most recently, Mercatus filed comments with the FAA as part of it proceeding on “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”


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