Starting next week you have to register your drone with the FAA

To invoke a phrase that the kids all seem to be using on Twitter these days, “Well… that escalated quickly.”

It was just back in August when we were talking about the problems some of those pesky drones were causing and what, if anything, the government could (or should) do about it. People were flying them in the glide paths of airports, spying on their neighbor’s daughters around the swimming pool and even attaching guns to them. But technology has once again quickly outstripped existing laws and the resources of law enforcement. What to do?

Normally it takes the federal government an ice age to bestir itself to action, but in this case they seem to have been moving at lightning speed. New regulations for the Federal Aviation Administration were rushed out and starting on December 21st nearly everyone is suppose to register their drones if they are run by anything more powerful than a rubber band. (Time Magazine)

Federal regulators are launching a new registration system for drones, as hundreds of thousands of the unmanned flying devices are expected to be sold as holiday gifts this month.

The new system requires owners of drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds to register with the Federal Aviation Administration through a new online form. Once the process is complete, drone operators are provided with a registration number, which they must affix to their aircraft. Operators only have to register once, even if they own multiple drones.

The registration process will cost $5 per person, but the FAA is waiving the fee for the first 30 days to encourage participation. The registration is valid for three years.

Before I throw cold water all over this idea (and you know I’m going to) I’ll just say that I completely understand the problem the government is wrestling with here and the impulse to do something about it. There are privacy concerns at one end of the scale and the threat of serious mayhem, injury or even death on the other end. (Some of the heavier drones can allegedly be flown into an aircraft engine.) This technology allows the rank and file citizen to do all sorts of amazing things and that unfortunately also opens the door to all sorts of amazing new mischief or even malevolence. We already regulate the movement of full size aircraft even more than we do cars and there are safety considerations which make this a legitimate trade off in terms of personal liberty and keeping Big Brother’s nose out from under the edges of our tents.

This registration system for some products which are little more than toys, however, has some immediately troubling aspects. It’s interesting new technology which will – when used benevolently – allow people to do more than play. Folks have already been exploring hard to reach places and learning more about their environment. Particularly for line of sight operating craft, building a government registration list seems a bit heavy handed. Of course, government use of licensing to excessive levels is nothing new. Our betters already demand licenses (or permission slips, really) for all sorts of things they have no business regulating. (Marriage and hunting for plentiful animals on public property or fishing in fresh water streams and rivers come to mind immediately.)

Also, this was rushed through in a way that it may be completely ineffective and even more open to government abuse. The Arlington Police Department already came out and said they don’t have the resources to enforce something like this and I’m sure many other departments will be saying the same thing. What’s more bothersome is that the way the regulations are structured they may be used as a punitive tool if the government wants to go after someone where they can’t come up with any other charge. Rather than finding people with unregistered drones and telling them to fill out their papers, they may wind up just waiting until somebody reports a drone which isn’t breaking any laws but is annoying them. Upon investigation the cops can track down the owner and, having no other charge to level, slap them with a $27,500 fine and possible jail time.

This is a real problem in search of a solution, but this hastily assembled regulatory scheme seems weak and ineffective at best and dangerous from a civil liberties perspective at worst. Look for more articles in the coming months on drone owners being hauled into court.