Is a drone a toy or a (tiny) airplane?
To the Department of Transportation, the question is far from complicated.
"Unmanned aircraft operators are aviators and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on Monday while unveiling new drone registration rules.
Starting Dec. 21, all operators of small drones — devices weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds — need to go online and register their names and addresses with the Federal Aviation Administration. The government would issue a registration number that would need to be displayed on that person's entire fleet of drones.
Drones are expected to be one of the hottest gifts this year, with the Consumer Technology Association forecasting that Americans will buy some 400,000 of them this holiday season. Thousands of them have already taken to the skies and more than 300 have had close encounters with planes, helicopters and other manned aircraft, according to one report. (The FAA does not yet track the number of drones in our skies.)
FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker says the agency's biggest focus is getting through to the drone fliers that their nifty gadget is pretty much on the same playing field as regular airplanes and helicopters:
"For decades, the only people who had access to our airspace were highly trained pilots who came from a culture where safety was deeply embedded. (...) Thousands upon thousands of brand-new users are starting to fly. And while we are confident that the vast majority of these people care about safety and want to operate safely, the reality is most have little to no aviation experience. So our challenge is to educate these new aviators that as soon as they start flying, they're pilots. They have the responsibility to fly safely and there are rules and regulations that apply to them."
The new regulations echo the rules that were recommended in November by a special task force of retailers, pilots, law enforcement and scores of other stakeholders. But there's one exception. The registration will cost money, $5 per operator to be exact. To encourage early registration, the FAA is waiving the fee for the first 30 days.
Government officials say the mission right now is to spread the word and get people to comply with the registration requirements, which will include public service announcements, social media and notices from local law enforcement. For blatant and egregious violations, the FAA can impose civil penalties of up to $27,500 and criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and 3 years in prison.
Anyone 13 and older can register themselves as an operator; younger children can operate drones under adult supervision with proper registration.
This is only one of the elements of FAA's drone-related rulemaking. The agency is also tackling a set of comprehensive rules for recreational drone fliers and another one for commercial drone operators, such as Google or Amazon.
For now, the FAA's guidance for fliers of store-bought and homemade drones remains the same: Keep your drones under 55 pounds; fly them within your line of sight and below 400 feet; stay at least 5 miles away from an airport; avoid flying near stadiums or crowded places; and take some drone classes or join a club for extra safety.