Feds Will Require $5 Registration Fee for Drones

Drone companies are expecting big sales for the holidays, but the government just gave them a lump of coal.

A drone with a camera is used to photograph an overhead view of more than 300 people dressed in Santa clothing at the fundraiser event Race of the Santas in Breckenridge, Colorado in 2012. (Nathan Bilow /AP Images for The Breckenridge Resort Chamber)

Consumers who buy drones will have to register with the government and pay a $5 fee, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday.

The move is an attempt by federal regulators to gain some control over the burgeoning drone industry, which is expecting a surge in sales for the holidays. Lawmakers and government officials have been calling for stricter regulations of recreational drones, citing a number of near misses with airplanes.

“Make no mistake: Unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely.”

The consumer drone industry was expecting a registration requirement but had lobbied against the $5 fee. Michael Drobac, a lobbyist for the firm Akin Gump, which represents a number of drone companies, called the fee a “disappointment” and warned that it will just discourage consumers from registering at all.

“The minute you ask consumers to pay for something of this kind, it creates a deterrent,” Drobac said. “Even though it’s a mandatory registration, the question becomes: What are the enforcement mechanisms? How will consumers get this information?”

An FAA task force made up of drone companies, consumer advocates, and government officials had called for drone pilots to register but had recommended against a registration fee.

The rules apply to any drones that weigh more than .55 pounds but less than 55 pounds, which covers many (but not all) generally-available drones. Consumers can register online, and will have to provide their names, home addresses, and email addresses. In an effort to encourage registration, the FAA is waiving the registration fee for the first 30 days. Consumers who already bought drones will have to register by Feb. 19.

Owners will have to be at least 13 years old to register, and will have to mark their drone with a unique identification number.The FAA still requires businesses to apply individually for special permission to operate drones for any commercial purposes, such as aerial photography.

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” Michael Huerta, the administrator of the FAA, said in a statement. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”

The rules don’t impose any requirements on the drone makers or retailers. Instead, the responsibility will be on the consumer to register. Drobac said he hopes the FAA will spearhead a public-relations campaign to inform consumers about their responsibilities.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called the registration rules a “positive step” but said more needs to be done to prevent drones from crashing into airplanes, buildings, or people on the ground. “The FAA needs to combine today’s announcement with effective enforcement, holding anyone accountable who threatens air safety,” he said in a statement. "Congress must act swiftly, empowering FAA even further with more authority, tools, and resources to safeguard our skies from increasing dangers of these new devices.”