Today the DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration published a notice of clarification in the Federal Register (80 FR 63912-63914) concerning aircraft registration requirements for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The notice also requests information from the public necessary for establishing an electronic system for UAS registration and for determining risk-based criteria for continuing the discretionary exemption for some UAS.
All Unmanned Aircraft Systems Must be Registered
The FAA explains in the notice that:
“To maintain safety in the NAS [national air space], the Department has reconsidered its past practice of exercising discretion with respect to requiring UAS to be registered, consistent with statutory requirements of 49 U.S.C. 44101-44103, and has determined that registration of all UAS is necessary to enforce personal accountability while operating an aircraft in our skies.”
The effective date of this change in regulatory enforcement is today, October 22nd, 2015. To register a small UAS (hobby type flying device sold at toy stores, malls and hobby shops) you need to go to the FAA’s Aircraft Registration: Unmanned Aircraft (UA) web page and scroll down to the instructions for “To Register a New - Small Unmanned Aircraft (sUA)”. Ignore the statement at the top of the page that “Registration is not required for model aircraft”; that was changed by today’s notice and has not made it to the web site yet.
The FAA notes in today’s notice that “it is apparent that the current paper-based system for aircraft registration is too burdensome for small UAS, to include model aircraft”. It is planning to move to an electronic registration system for small UAS. The FAA announced Monday that it would be convening a special task force to develop recommendations for a registration process for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)”. To assist that task force the included in today’s notice a number of questions about which it was requesting public feedback. Those questions include:
1. What methods are available for identifying individual products? Does every UAS sold have an individual serial number? Is there another method for identifying individual products sold without serial numbers or those built from kits?
2. At what point should registration occur (e.g. point-of-sale or prior-to-operation)? How should transfers of ownership be addressed in registration?
3. If registration occurs at point-of-sale, who should be responsible for submission of the data? What burdens would be placed on vendors of UAS if DOT required registration to occur at point-of-sale? What are the advantages of a point-of-sale approach relative to a prior-to-operation approach?
4. Consistent with past practice of discretion, should certain UAS be excluded from registration based on performance capabilities or other characteristics that could be associated with safety risk, such as weight, speed, altitude operating limitations, duration of flight? If so, please submit information or data to help support the suggestions, and whether any other criteria should be considered.
5. How should a registration process be designed to minimize burdens and best protect innovation and encourage growth in the UAS industry?
6. Should the registration be electronic or web-based? Are there existing tools that could support an electronic registration process?
7. What type of information should be collected during the registration process to positively identify the aircraft owner and aircraft?
8. How should the registration data be stored? Who should have access to the registration data? How should the data be used?
9. Should a registration fee be collected and if so, how will the registration fee be collected if registration occurs at point-of-sale? Are there payment services that can be leveraged to assist (e.g. PayPal)?
10. Are there additional means beyond aircraft registration to encourage accountability and responsible use of UAS?
Public comments may be submitted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal (www.Regulations.gov; Docket # FAA-2015-4378). Since the Task Force is to complete their report by November 20th, the FAA is requesting that comments be submitted by November 6th, 2015.
The FAA clearly jumped the gun on this process in an attempt to get a registration process in place before the expected jump in small UAS sales for Christmas. Unfortunately, they quietly and blatantly ignored a number of regulatory requirements in their making the effective date of this change in enforcement effective today.
The first of course deals the fact that they have now made obsolete the information collection request for Aircraft Registration (2120-0042); an update of which was just approved on September 30th. The supporting document submitted to OMB by the FAA projected 206,570 responses per year for a time burden of 111,154 hours. Those burden estimates were based upon an extrapolation of documents submitted during the first 10 months of FY 2015.
That means that those burden estimates do not include the huge number of first time registrations for small UAS. I have no idea how many of those things are currently in service, but if you include even the smallest remotely controlled toy helicopters there are probably at least a hundred thousand UAS (admittedly a number picked out of mid-air, so to speak) currently in use that have not been registered with the FAA. The FAA clearly needs to launch a new ICR revision to take these numbers into account before it can legally require the information to be submitted.
As the FAA explained in their notice using the current paper based registration process for this huge influx of registration requests is not an option, but it is the only option currently available. And a truly antiquated process it is. According to the FAA’s registration web site:
“You must use an original Aircraft Registration Application, AC Form 8050-1. We don't accept photocopies or computer-generated copies of this form. Aircraft Registration Applications may be obtained from the Aircraft Registration Branch or your local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).”
NOTE: The OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) only approved the most recent ICR for Aircraft Registration for 18 months because of the antiquated manual form filling process. OIRA stated “This collection has been approved for a period of 18 months. Before resubmission, the agency shall create PDF-Fillable versions of all the forms in this collection. Further, in conjunction with OMB 2120-0729, the agency shall evaluate allowing the use of e-signatures in accordance with GPEA. The agency shall provide a detailed report to OMB with the results of their evaluation and specific next steps for compliance.”
Fortunately, the other forms that are required in the registration process are available for download. But all of the completed documentation needs to be snail mailed to the Aircraft Registration Branch in Oklahoma City, OK. According to their Aircraft Registry web site they currently have about a 22 day backlog on registration processing. How much longer will that backlog be when they start receiving thousands of UAS application in addition to their standard workload?
The other side of this is that this is going to be a huge influx of money into the FAA (okay I’m pretty sure that this goes back into the general Treasury account, but still). There is a $10 fee for obtaining an N-number (aircraft registration number; starts with the letter ‘N’ hence the name); which is required before you submit your registration paperwork. And then there is the $5 registration fee. And the same fees must be paid every time the UAS is sold or the registration is renewed (every three years). Some of the newer and smaller versions of the quadcopters do not cost much more than the price of registration.
The FAA was way too premature in setting an October 22nd, 2015 effective date for the change in their aircraft registration policy. There is a lot more effort that needs to go into requiring the registration of small UAS. This had to be clearly understood when they added the 10 questions about UAS registration to this notice. The FAA clearly has no interest in registering 26mm quad copters, while it may find it necessary to register some pushing the 50-lb small UAS limit. The FAA needs to re-do this notice as a straight request for information and leave the change in enforcement until they decide which UAS they really need to register.
Oh, yes, that Task Force? Is there anyone in their right mind that thinks that a workable document can be crafted by that many people in that short of time? Really? One that will stand up to implementation in the real world? By an agency with the technological incompetence of the FAA? I have some land that I want to sell you about 50 miles south of Key West….