Consumer drone registry creates challenge for FAA

Regulators this week released an industry task force's recommendations on how to register consumer drones. Now they face a new challenge: getting owners to sign up.

The Federal Aviation Administration has looked to set up a registry of consumer unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, amid some unwelcome flights around federal airspace and public events. The recommendations — given by both private and public sector industry experts — come amid a possible flurry of holiday drone sales.

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The FAA will now take public comments on the suggestions, but it has not set a timeline for when a final rule will take effect. In the meantime, gift-givers could buy thousands of drones, and questions remain about how the agency will get existing owners to register.

"It's a real challenge in the fact that most of these will be bought prior to any final rule," said David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University and a drone policy expert.

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Under the recommendations, all drones between 0.55 of a pound and 55 pounds operated outdoors would need to be registered. Owners would register for free online and receive one identification number for all of the UAVs they own.

If individuals fly unregistered drones, they would face punishment from warnings to fines. By the time the registry goes into effect, the FAA may need a huge public information campaign to reach existing owners.

Roughly 700,000 drones are expected to ship in the U.S. alone this year, a 63 percent increase from last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. A chunk of those UAVs could sell in the coming shopping flurry of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as some producers and retailers are offering discounts.

But without having a registry in effect at the time those drones are sold, it would largely fall on the owners themselves to sign up.

Integrating drones into US airspace
Integrating drones into US airspace

The FAA told CNBC that it will conduct "extensive outreach" about registration once rules are implemented. Possible methods include manufacturers sending emails to previous customers or including registration information in packaging, said Gregory McNeal, a professor of law at Pepperdine University and co-founder of airspace data provider AirMap.

McNeal, who served on the task force, downplayed concerns about users failing to register. He noted that, outside of FAA and manufacturer efforts, the issue has already received extensive media coverage.

"You'd have to sort of live under a rock to not be aware that this registration process is underway," he said.

Requiring registration at the device's sale — online or at a store checkout — could reduce the number of people failing to sign up. While some members of the task force urged the FAA to offer it as an option, others noted that the FAA would overreach its authority to regulate only the operation, and not the sale, of aircraft.