Monday, October 19, 2015

Drones Face New Regulatory Push • U.S. aims to issue final registration rules before Christmas, an unusually fast timeline

The Wall Street Journal
By Jack Nicas
Oct. 18, 2015 7:42 p.m. ET

U.S. regulators plan to require recreational drone owners to register their devices, an ambitious bid to rein in reckless users that faces a tight timeline and a thicket of legal and practical questions.

The Transportation Department plans to announce Monday that it wants to soon require registration for all unmanned aircraft “except for toys and those with minimal safety risk,” according to a draft news release reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The department plans to create a task force of more than two dozen government and industry representatives to recommend the specifics of a registration policy, including which drones should be included, how users will register and whether the rules will apply to drones already sold, according to people familiar with the plans. The draft news release says the department wants to “create a culture of accountability” for drone operators.

Several people said the government aims to issue final registration rules before Christmas, an exceptionally fast timeline for aviation regulations. Typical aviation rulemakings take years.

The Transportation Department said it planned to make a drone-related announcement Monday but declined further comment.

Regulators and lawmakers have struggled to keep up with the proliferation of drones as new technology has made them smaller, cheaper and easier to fly, increasing concern that the devices pose a threat to people in the air and on the ground. Industry executives estimate hundreds of thousands of drones have been sold in the U.S.

Registration would be one of regulators’ most ambitious steps to crack down on unsafe flights and enforce existing rules, including that drones can’t be flown near airports or beyond the sight of an operator.

Defining which drones would require registration is expected to be a key issue for the task force, several committee members said. Commercial drones are to be regulated by separate rules expected to be completed next year.

Regulators are expected to require registration for the most popular recreational drones—four-rotor copters called Phantoms made by China’s SZ DJI Technology Co. that sell for roughly $1,000—and similar models. Members said regulators might be willing to exclude smaller devices, such as the 2-ounce, $100 MiniDrones sold by French manufacturer Parrot SA.

Several drone-industry executives and former government officials expressed skepticism that regulators would be able to meet the year-end goal. One person familiar with the government’s plans said the agency intends to declare the rule an emergency, allowing regulators to short-circuit a process that normally requires monthslong reviews and public-comment periods.

Completing an aviation rule in three months would be “unprecedented,” said Jim Williams, who retired in June as the top drone official at the Federal Aviation Administration and is now a consultant for the law firm Dentons. “It would be the most amazing feat of governance I’ve seen in my 33 years in the federal government.”

People associated with the industry raised a host of other logistical questions: Will drone sellers be required to collect customer information? How will the policy account for homemade drones? Can the FAA simplify and streamline a registration process that for manned aircraft typically takes about three months?

The expedited timeline worries many, including those who support registration to help educate users about airspace rules.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Gretchen West, an adviser at law firm Hogan Lovells LLP. But the government’s timeline “makes me nervous what the outcome will be.”

Others noted that the commercial-drone rules have been in the works since 2005. “After 10 years of rule making, we suddenly have this scramble to do something within a month, which is terribly short under any circumstances,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s head of policy.

Mr. Williams, the former FAA official, and others also questioned how regulators plan to deal with a 2012 law that generally prohibits the FAA from regulating recreational drones. FAA officials have cited that law as the reason they don’t plan extensive regulations for recreational drones, similar to those for commercial devices.

“This is a serious open question,” said task-force member Greg McNeal, a Pepperdine University law professor and co-founder of AirMap, an airspace-information app for drone users.

The person familiar with the government’s plans said that federal lawyers are expected to argue that drones are legally aircraft, and thus the FAA can require them to be registered under other laws.

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