FAA calls for drone registry: How big a problem are 'close calls'?

The FAA plans to require recreational users to register their drones. But some experts say it's a rushed solution to a serious but overstated problem. 

Alex Brandon/AP Photo/File
A hexacopter drone is flown during a drone demonstration at a farm in Cordova, Md., this summer. Federal regulators announced Monday a plan to require many of the increasingly popular unmanned aircraft to be registered.

In response to a reported increase in drone sightings and accidents, federal regulators on Monday announced a plan to require drone hobbyists to register their devices with the United States government.

The move comes just months after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported that the number of unmanned aircraft sightings and “close calls” went from 238 in 2014 to more than 650 as of August this year. High-profile incidents, such as recreational drones interfering with firefighting efforts or crashing on the White House lawn, have also helped spur action.

Yet an analysis of the FAA’s data found that the actual number of near misses that involved drone hobbyists was in the dozens, not hundreds, according to the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), a nonprofit model aviation association in Muncie, Ind. The FAA included in its tally incidents involving military and commercial operators, as well as those involving drone fliers who were following proper guidelines, the AMA found.

The data raise questions about whether the FAA is rushing to regulate a problem perceived to be more urgent than it is.

Safety “is a really big issue,” says Rich Hanson, AMA’s director of government and regulatory affairs, who will be part of a US Department of Transportation task force to develop the registration system. But “we believe that to a certain extent, [the figures have] been a bit overstated.”

The task force has until Nov. 20 to finalize its recommendations for the new system. Part of the reason for the tight timetable – a period that “amounts to lightning speed for the FAA,” as The Washington Post reports – is the approach of the Christmas season, when drone sales are expected to reach 700,000 units.

Hurrying to create a registry, however, could do more harm than good, says Timothy Ravich, an assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and an aviation law specialist.

As it stands, the task force will have about 30 days to draw up the criteria for drones that need to be registered and figure out how to reach hundreds of thousands of existing drone owners and get them to register.

To do that, the government will have to further educate the public, both about the need to register their devices and about drone capabilities and use in general, says Gretchen West, senior adviser for innovation and technology at global law firm Hogan Lovells.

She notes that efforts along those lines exist: The FAA-backed “Know Before You Fly” campaign, for instance, aims to provide drone operators with information and guidance with regard to rules of use. But coming up with an integrated solution for the long term merits careful consideration, she says.

“I can understand why they think it’s urgent ... and for the most part it’s a positive idea. [But] I think time should be taken to do this right,” Ms. West says. “A blanket stopgap to get us through the holidays ... may cause sales to drop or hobbyists to lose interest. And that’s not what we want to see.”

“It’s better to be right than quick,” Professor Ravich says. “Ad hoc is not a good formula for either policy- or rulemaking.”

Still, all agree that public safety as it relates to drone use needs to be addressed, and right away. “There’s no doubt that occurrences of these devices appearing in inappropriate places is an issue,” says Mr. Hanson of the AMA.

“This technology is going to be extremely beneficial in a lot of areas,” he adds. “I think the bigger message is we have to innovate safely.”

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