In an effort to make our country safer, effective this coming Monday, December 21st, Americans are required to register with the FAA their unmanned aircraft systems (i.e., drones). New purchasers of drones - which are expected to be a popular holiday gift item this year - are required to register their devices before operating them; for those who already have drones, the deadline to register without facing penalties is February 16, 2016. Failure to register can result in serious penalties - according to the FAA, punishments could potentially reach fines of $250,000 and imprisonment for up to three years.
Drones weighing less than 250 grams (.55 lbs.) are exempt, and that rule will exclude from the registration requirement some, but not all, children's toys, and, according to the FAA, many drones models that are sold for under $100. Drones weighing over 55 lbs. are also exempted because they are already subject to paper-based registration, and will continue to be regulated as such. The FAA provides examples of exempt drones here.
Unless you have gotten a special exemption, you still may not operate a drone for business purposes. The FAA is expected to begin allowing commercial drone use by sometime in 2016.
Thankfully, the FAA clarifies on its website that paper airplanes, toy balloons, and Frisbees are not subject to registration "Even if these things could be considered 'drones' or 'unmanned aircraft' and met the minimum weight threshold of 250 gm/0.55 lb., the registration rules also require that they be a part of an 'unmanned aircraft system.' An 'unmanned aircraft system' includes the communication links and components that control the small unmanned aircraft along with all of the other elements needed to safely operate the drone. Paper airplanes, toy balloons, Frisbees, and similar items are not connected to such control system."
The registration fee is $5 (although people who register by January 20, 2016 will have their $5 fee refunded), and registrations must be renewed every three years. You must report to the FAA if you transfer ownership of a drone to someone else. And, if you own multiple drones, you only register once and use the same registration number for all of your drones. While this rule may save some people money, it is also a bit disconcerting as it means that the government is actually registering Americans who own drones, not the drones themselves.
Once you register, you will receive an email containing a certificate of registration that you must have with you (in either hardcopy or as a readily retrievable electronic file) when operating your drone. You must also mark your drone with your registration number in a fashion that it can be read by someone confirming that the drone is registered. So as not to impact aesthetics, the FAA does allow registration numbers to be recorded inside battery compartments - but only if the compartments can be accessed without the use of tools. The number can be written with permanent marker, printed on a label, engraved, or recorded through other means as long as it is readily accessible and maintained in a condition that is easily readable upon close visual inspection.
Interestingly, due to the constraints of federal law governing the FAA, registration is available only to United States citizens and permanent residents; while others may complete the online drone registration form, the FAA states that such registration will be considered only "recognition of ownership" - which can "facilitate the recovery of the UAS, should it be lost or stolen" - but it seems unclear if foreign nationals or undocumented immigrants can legally fly drones that they own within the United States since even after completing the form, their drones would technically remain unregistered. I expect the FAA to clarify this matter soon.
To register drones please visit the FAA website.
For answers to frequently asked questions please see the FAA's FAQ.
To discuss with me - please contact me via Twitter at @JosephSteinberg.