Unmanned Aircraft Registration – Why it is Legal and Why it is Important
On November 11th, 2015 a DJI Phantom 3 crashed into the Ferris Wheel shown to the left. The aircraft fell from over 200 feet, smashed through a plastic picnic table. It didn’t injure anyone, but property damage was incurred as a direct result of a seemingly unlawful flight. It was above a a populated area in class D Airspace. This particular model of aircraft ranges from roughly $1300 to $2300 depending on the package, location of purchase, and accessories. The aircraft operator was never found – the pilot did not come forward. Rather than risk being prosecuted for a “reckless or dangerous” flight, the operator chose to call it a loss and move on with his or her day. This is not unique and it is precisely the type of decision and behavior the FAA seeks to prevent.
The FAA has really stepped up its regulations game in time for the holiday season and, unsurprisingly, hobbyist and
commercial operators aren’t happy. While everyone has an opinion, the truth is, administrative courts have decided that the FAA can regulate all aviation. This is much to the chagrin of the hobby lobbyists who spent lots of money and time ensuring AC 91-57 was issued in 1981 and mirrored in its intent in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. While the original AC expired in September 2015, and was re-issued as AC 91-57A , it stipulated that while modelers did have safety standards to follow and those standards still exist, the FAA does consider itself to have the ability to regulate further model aircraft pursuant to a determination of “model aircraft” status as decided by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Raphael V. Pirker. This update of the AC signals its understanding and application of why it has the ability to issue registration requirements for unmanned aircraft – including those for recreational use only. Ultimately it comes down to one thing and one thing only:
(14 CFR Part 47) ALL AIRCRAFT ARE REQUIRED TO BE REGISTERED. MODEL AIRCRAFT – regardless of intent for use – ARE CONSIDERED AIRCRAFT.
THEREFORE REGISTRATION IS NOT NEW, JUST THE PROCESS FOR IT. THIS IS NOT A NEW REGULATION, IT IS A NEW PROCESS
The FAA is up against a legislative gift to lobbyists that is rooted in an archaic understanding of unmanned aviation. When AC 91-57 was originally published model aviation was difficult, required significant investment of time and community relations, and even necessitated membership with community based groups in a specific location. Unmanned recreational aviation has moved well beyond those requirements with GPS and flight control developments and the miniaturization of computing. In Section 336 of the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-95), FAA was specifically barred from “promulgating any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft developed as a model aircraft.”
So, what was the FAA to do? On the FAA website the following FAQ answers that question:
Q2. Does the FAA have the authority to require registration of UAS used by modelers and hobbyists?
- Yes. By statute all aircraft are required to register. Congress has defined “aircraft” to include UAS, regardless of whether they are operated by modelers and hobbyists.
Q5. Why do I need to register?
- Federal law requires aircraft registration. Registration helps us ensure safety – for you, others on the ground, and manned aircraft. UAS pose new security and privacy challenges and must be traceable in the event of an incident. It will also help enable the return of your UAS should it be lost.
The FAA is betting on a court upholding the NTSB determination that model aviation is a technologically outdated term and has no meaning in application; essentially, all unmanned aircraft can be considered aircraft. The Remote Control Aerial Platform Association (RCAPA), the American Modelers Association (AMA) as well as other hobby groups disagree with this determination and it is very likely that lawsuit will come as they deem new policies of web registration violate the intent of Section 336 of the Modernization and Reform Act – they are instructing their membership to disobey the FAA Web registration requirement evidenced in this article at suasnews.com. Still, industry thought leaders and followers are upset.
Understanding the need for drone regulation is important, especially when it requires individuals to hand over personal information to a government entity. Fallacious arguments abound as twitter talking heads exclaim “I’ll register my drone when you register your gun” or “The bad guys won’t register, it will do nothing to increase safety.” Well, guns should be registered. Done. Next.
It is true that bad actors exist that won’t register their drone. However, reducing anonymity in unmanned flight cultivates a more responsible approach for anyone looking to operate commercially or with good intentions. The registration requirement is not intended to stop terrorists. It is not the be-all end-all for safety. It is the first step in encourage good actors to act responsibly.
We must encourage ownership and identification for unmanned aviation as the very nature of non-collocated piloting breeds less concern for operational safety. The more ownership pilots have, the better behavior we will see. Anyone familiar with the internet, or has read Lord of the Flies, or has taken a basic Psych 101 course in college understands that hiding behind masks, or believing you are anonymous, breeds different behavior. In Psychology, we see this in the concept of deindividuation and it has been well established. This concept states that “Deindividuation fosters a state of lessened self-awareness, reduced concern for social evaluation, and weakened restraints against prohibited forms of behavior.” When individuals are “just part of the crowd,” or “faceless,” they are less mindful of prohibitions against aggressive, destructive actions and are therefore less likely to take responsibility for aggressive acts. (Aronson, E., The Social Animal, Pg. 280). Registration and self-identification to authority lessens that deindividuation and develops a bond with social construct and fellow man.
By reducing the anonymous nature of unmanned flight we increase the connection between actions and outcomes. A person is less likely to commit a trespass, less likely to fly within 5 miles of an airport, and more likely to turn up after a crash. Web registration is the first element of a safe unmanned aircraft community and will help FAA educate and inform. It will foster responsibility where little exists and develop the much needed relationship between pilot, aircraft, and community.
UAS registration is a legal requirement and it is a positive step toward unmanned aviation safety.