Unregistered drone users may face jail time

Hundreds of thousands of drone operators could now face hefty fines, or even jail time, for failing to register their aircraft with the government.
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Hundreds of thousands of drone operators could now face hefty fines, or even jail time, for failing to register their aircraft with the government.

Hundreds of thousands of drone operators could now face hefty fines, or even jail, for failing to register their aircraft with the government.

As of Saturday, owners flying an unregistered UAS could now face a civil penalty of $27,500, a criminal fine of $250,000 and/or three years in prison.

Users have registered nearly 370,000 drones with the Federal Aviation Administration since its registration system opened in December. Still, hundreds of thousands of UAS owners may remain unregistered and subject to penalties despite the FAA's efforts to educate owners about the process.

The agency requires consumers to register drones that weigh 0.55 to 55 pounds. The rules aim to keep track of the booming technology and prevent potentially dangerous flights around planes, airports and public events.

"Simply put, registration is all about safety," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "It provides us with a key opportunity to educate the new generation of airspace users that as soon as they start flying outside, they're pilots."

Register your drone in a few minutes
Register your drone in a few minutes   

As authorities start to enforce penalties, hundreds of thousands of users may face punishment. The Consumer Technology Association estimated 700,000 drones would ship last year, a 63 percent increase from 2014.

That total does not include drone purchases before 2015. So even after the nearly 370,000 sign-ups, a huge chunk of consumer drones likely remain off the books.

The FAA has taken steps to educate users about registration, including through social media and device packaging. Still, multiple factors may continue to deter sign-ups.

For one, users need to pay $5 to log their devices after a free registration period ended. Some industry advocates have cast it as a "drone tax," while the FAA has said it helps to maintain the system and is required by law.

"Even a small fee — essentially a drone tax — could undermine the FAA's objective of widespread compliance," the Consumer Technology Association said in a statement last year.

The FAA did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.