How to avoid paying a fee for registering your drone

The FAA has mandated that drone owners must register them for a fee, but there are ways to avoid the cost and still comply with the requirement.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File
A drone flies near Brigham City, Utah, on February 13, 2014. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is requiring that all drone owners must register their "small, unmanned aircraft" by January 20th, 2016 or pay a fee.

As of 12/21/15, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has mandated that all "small unmanned aircraft" - better known as drones - must register with their Unmanned Aircraft System registry before flying outdoors. 

Registration costs $5, but your $5 will be refunded if you register by midnight EST on January 20, 2016. 

Got that? Registration is effectively free through 1/20. The FAA is literally running a deal on drone registrations.

Why do we suddenly need to register our drones, anyway?

Drones have been growing in popularity for the last several years, and increasingly becoming a nuisance, sometimes even a threat to public safety. Remember how everyone freaked out about a drone that was flown onto the White House lawn? The FAA's documentation cites several incidentswhere drones created a hazard. In multiple incidents, planes fighting wildfires were grounded when drones violated a temporary flight restricted zone, hampering firefighting efforts and resulting in extensive avoidable vehicle and property damage. In another, a drone operator lost control of his drone and it crashed into a toddler, sending her to the hospital.

In light of incidents like these, the new rules are intended to help get a handle on who is flying what and better hold owners accountable when things go wrong.

But before we go any further, let's clear up one thing right off: Most of the toy drones that showed up under Christmas trees last week don't require registration. This is because many drones, particularly those intended as toys, less very little, and the FAA isn't interested in anything that can't really make it out of your yard or gets knocked down in a light breeze.

The new rules only apply to drones weighing between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs.

While .55 lbs seems like a really low threshold, this FAQ from the FAA calls out specific common and popular models and it's clear that most of the toys are really, really light. They have to be, or they wouldn't ever get airborne with such weak motors. The drones the FAA wants to keep tabs on are more heavy duty, higher powered. Bottom line, the FAA does not care about your Air Hogs Millennium Falcon Drone.

How much does your drone really weigh?

The product info for the Air Hogs Millennium Falcon notes that the shipping weight is 1.4 lbs, which is over the FAA threshold, but that number includes the weight of the packaging, so it's not a good indicator.

What's more, the drone's weight depends on whether or not it's got batteries, modifications like cameras, etc. So what happens if the weight without batteries is under 0.55 lbs, but with batteries goes over? The FAA buries the clarification on page 11 of this 69 page PDF, but on that page clearly states "weighing less than 55 pounds and more than 0.55 pounds on takeoff." (The emphasis there is ours.) So if it goes up in the air with your drone, it should be included in the weight.

Keeping all of that in mind, you'll probably need to weigh your drone yourself to know if it requires FAA registration. Your bathroom scale may not be sensitive enough to weigh small drones properly, so try using a kitchen scale for the most accurate results.

Okay, so I need to register my drone. Now what?

So long as you're just using it as a hobbyist, you can register online here. If you use it commercially, like for professional photography as an example, you'll need to register by paper instead. The registration deadline is February 19, 2016, and you could be fined or even face jail time if you're caught flying an unregistered drone.

You can find more information about the Federal Aviation Administration's Small Unmanned Aircraft System registry here.

This article first appeared on Brad's Deals.

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