The FAA’s Move to Register Recreational Drones will Likely Fail

What The Economist Missed in “Welcome to the Drone Age”
September 29, 2015
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The FAA’s Move to Register Recreational Drones will Likely Fail

On Monday, October 19, federal regulators announced they will require recreational drone pilots to register their aircraft. The reason for this is the proliferation of “rogue” drones causing problems to a variety of public-sector endeavors such as commercial aviation and firefighting. While this may seem like a good idea to the layman, the drone industry realizes it’s toothless. Here’s why.

 

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

All the good intentions in the world can’t erase the hundreds of thousands of unregistered commercial drones that exist today, and projections are for up to 1 million drones to be sold by the end of 2015. The sheer amount of effort required to retroactively register all of these recreational drones is overwhelming and would require already beleaguered agencies to take on this additional workload, which at this time seems far from possible.

 

Drones are Not Cars or Airplanes

Registering vehicles like cars and airplanes is relatively easy because they require the manufacturer to place unique identifiers (VINs, serial numbers) on the units. However, even so, criminals can (and do) easily remove or replace the identifiers, which isn’t particularly difficult. Additionally, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA):
“The FAA estimates that approximately one-third of the 357,000 registered aircraft records it maintains are inaccurate and that many aircraft associated with those records are likely ineligible for United States registration.”

As newer technology, like 3D printing, becomes more common drones could be created from scratch and no one would bother with any serial numbers and traceability becomes nearly impossible.

 

Motivation

The Washington Post states the government’s motivation as:
“[… Regulators hope that forcing owners — many of whom are aviation novices — to register their drones with the government will at least make them think twice about their responsibility to fly safely and the possibility that they could be held accountable for an accident.”
That notion is laughable. Why would anyone be motivated to voluntarily register their drone when they know the information will be used against them if anything goes wrong? Granted, some law-abiding citizens will probably register their drones but the majority will most likely opt to simply abandon the drone if it is caught doing something illegal. This will undoubtedly be the case if the anticipated fine is more than the cost of the drone itself.
Drone pilots know the only way they can get “busted” under this new approach will be because their drone gets captured. There are mechanisms that can bring drones down but most are illegal and many may cause damage to the drone itself or to innocent people on the ground. The flood of lawsuits against law enforcement for causing a drone to crash, especially if a person is killed, will be overwhelming to the system. Lawsuits will be filed by drone pilots as well as by any bystanders who are injured and looking to collect damages.

 

Criminals

The new regulations will have zero impact on criminal behavior because disposable drones are already the norm for illicit activity. Criminals will ignore all the mandates. They will purchase or build a drone, fly it for a single purpose, and abandon it quickly. For example, to get contraband into a prison the pilot will simply buy a drone, attach the payload, fly the drone to the designated location, and abandon it.

 

The Answer

No one has the silver bullet—not right now, at least. The technology is too new and moving too rapidly for anyone to genuinely get a handle on the space. With that said, there are some things that could be done to immediately mitigate the risks involved.
First, instead of requiring the consumer to register each drone manually, create a universal transponder system that is factory-installed in each drone. Criminals can still circumvent this but most pilots will likely leave it alone and the signal can be used to locate drones in the vicinity. Of course, adding a transponder to each drone means additional cost that will be passed to the consumer but it addresses the root problem of being able to see when a drone is in an inhibited area, such as an airport.

Secondly, require drone manufacturers to work with drone-mitigation solutions like Drone Labs’ Drone Detector® so that technological elements can be put in place for dealing with recreational drones used by criminals. For example, the ability to utilize a standard set of Application Programming Interface (API) calls provided by drone manufacturers to drone mitigation companies would be a large step in the right direction.

Finally, make sure the fines for intentional drone misuse are high enough to be an actual deterrent. A few highly publicized cases should be enough to give pause to most would-be violators so law enforcement and drone mitigation companies can focus on the real threats.

 

Conclusion

While well intentioned, the new regulations will not likely stop intrusive activity but it could have a chilling economic impact on this nascent industry if the public fears that flying a recreational drone will get them into trouble. More thought needs to be applied to detection, i.e., solving the problem before there is a conflagration. Federal regulators must have a discussion with subject matter experts who commonly deal with rogue drones and their operators if they want to truly understand and fix the problems in this space.

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