License to drone: FAA requires hobby pilots to register unmanned craft
With the increased popularity of recreational-use drones this holiday season, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a new regulation this month requiring drone users to register any unmanned aircraft weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds.
The policy is geared toward larger toys and flying video equipment, as well as remote-controlled planes. Palm-sized remote control craft, like mini-helicopters, that fall under the weight restriction are exempt from registration. On its web page, the FAA notes that non-motorized items like frisbees also do not require qualify under the regulation.
“The FAA is very concerned with the increase in reports we’re getting from pilots who see unmanned aircraft in their vicinity,” organization spokesman Ian Gregor said regarding the policy.
The issue has become especially pressing around airports and during wildfire management operations.
In reference to wildfires and drones, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said, “It’s been a significant issue for us for the last couple of years. This year we had about 25 documented incidents where the public was flying drones near wildfires.”
Jones said that in some instances, the Forest Service has had to ground their firefighting aircraft.
Locally, South Lake Tahoe Airport director Sherry Miller said it’s also an issue with the South Shore airport’s close proximity to the lake and a meadow that would otherwise be a good place for drone use.
“It’s a huge concern,” Miller said.
Some media outlets have reported that close to a million remote-control drones may be sold during the Christmas season.
Prior to the new regulation, non-commercial usage of unmanned aircraft like drones did not require registration. Under the new guidelines, anyone using a drone is required to fill out a brief online registration with the FAA. Once submitted with a $5 fee, drone users receive a registration number that needs to be displayed on the equipment.
Users who do not comply could be fined up to $250,000 and face as many as three years in jail.
Gregor said the reason for the new policy is as much about safety and education as it is about pursuing policy violations.
“It gives us the opportunity to connect with the owners. We can push out educational materials,” Gregor explained. “Traditionally the only people that had access to the air were highly-trained pilots.”
Anyone who currently owns a drone must register no later than Feb. 19, 2016. Equipment purchased after Dec. 21 must be registered before it is flown.
Under existing policy, anyone flying a drone for commercial usage must have an approved FAA exemption and a sport pilot’s license in order to operate — the same license as a pilot for a small manned aircraft.
Gregor said the FAA is currently revising its commercial usage policy.
“We’re working on a rule that will allow routine operation of commercial aircraft. You would have to have some training but not a full-blown pilot’s license,” he explained.
According to Gregor, the FAA expects to have a rule in place by early 2016.
The U.S. Forest Service currently allows recreational drone usage on its land except in wilderness areas. Users must keep drones away from populated areas and comply with FAA guidelines. Most ski areas, however, do not allow drones. An official with Vail Resorts cited safety concerns for their policy. The U.S. National Parks Service has also banned drone usage, and the FAA has said that unmanned aircraft can not be flown within 5 miles of an airport.