Why the US government is right to want to register drones

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Got your number.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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The drones are coming. Soon, they’re going to be delivering our packages, our medical supplies, taking our photos, walking our dogs, and potentially end up being as ubiquitous as the smartphone. And while all that is certainly exciting, it also creates a ton of regulatory concerns about integrating drones into the national airspace.

Last month, the US government announced that it planned to require any consumer drone to be registered with the Department of Transportation (DOT). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) convened a “task force”—including companies like Amazon, DJI, Google, and others with vested interest in the drone industry—to work through the proposal. They deliberated for three days last week ahead of a Nov. 20 deadline to deliver recommendations to US Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx—and according to a report from the Wall Street Journal Nov. 6, they are going to recommend a pretty wide-sweeping registration policy for drones. And although some may see the move as an unnecessary injection of the government into what is ostensibly a hobbyist activity in the US, it will probably turn out to have been a sensible move.

The FAA has estimated that 1 million drones could be sold this holiday season. The agency has also not yet codified its regulations on how drones should be incorporated into the national airspace, and is right now relying on a collection of confusing suggestions it put together that drone-flying consumers should follow, rather than laws. This will likely change in the next year, but right now, the FAA and the DOT need a solution to deal with the influx of drones. And for good reason: We are terrible drone pilots.

Flying drones is hard

Although some in the US are talented enough to control drones that whip around tight racetracks at 70mph, most of us are not. In the last few months, drones have crashed into the White House and the US Open, have cut open Enrique Iglesias’ finger, obstructed forest fire rescues, and apparently come close to “near misses” with commercial jets. Some of these incidents were the result of poor flying, but they all seem to have also involved some poor decision making skills, whether that was thinking it was a good idea to touch a drone’s spinning blades or flying near planes carrying hundreds of people.

Anne Swanson, a partner at the law firm Cooley—which helped secure some of the first commercial exemptions for businesses to fly drones in the US—told Quartz that the registration plan made sense, especially as some lawmakers have been looking to impose stricter regulations on hobbyist drone users.

“It’s nothing compared to some of the legislation that was pending on the Hill,” Swanson said, such as New Jersey Senator Cory Brooker’s bill that would require drone operators to pass a test before flying, and take out insurance on the drone. Swanson said the FAA’s motivation is “safety-based and education-driven.” In 2012, Congress passed a bill with an exemption that allowed hobbyist drone flyers to legally operate drones in the US airspace, but the law mandated that the FAA have licensing and policies in place for commercial drones by 2015. That date passed, and no laws are in place, and the actual regulations around flying drones are still muddy. But had the FAA not moved forward with a registration plan, Congress may have acted drastically, Swanson said. ”I think folks on the Hill would’ve moved a little more quickly with provisions that were a little more detailed and probably much more wide-sweeping,” she said. “That’s why [the FAA] is moving with alacrity.”

And before any ”Don’t Tread On Me” activists out there ask: This isn’t taking away any freedoms from US citizens. Although there’s a strong desire for a national database for things that have been proven to be far more deadly—like guns—Swanson says there’s no constitutional argument to hide behind with drone registration, like there is with a national gun registration database. “A constitutional amendment kind of gets in the way, at least on the side of the NRA and the folks that are opposing that,” she said. “We don’t have any of that here.” Swanson thinks the FAA has the authority to set up a database like this, solely under the agency’s directive of keeping US airspace safe: ”It may get challenged in court, but I think ultimately they’ll win.”

Not everyone is a fan of the FAA’s proposal. Jonathan Rupprecht, an attorney that specializes in the laws on drones and drone registration, thinks that registration will be impractical. In a blog post responding to the FAA’s proposal, he said:

A drone sucked in a jet engine is going to be all over the place. Are you going to require metal placards attached to the drone? Furthermore, it is easy to scratch off a serial number. Is possession of a drone with a scratched off serial number going to become illegal?

Rupprecht also argued that having drones registered won’t actually stop anyone from misusing a drone, or committing any crimes. He thinks, instead, that the FAA should look into location-tracking technology, called geo-fencing, that could stop drones from getting too close to buildings to better protect US citizens. “Registration points you to who might have caused the incident, geo-fencing can help prevent it,” he said. (Swanson argued that knowing who caused a crime is better than not knowing at all.) Others think we should just rely on common sense and “community conscience“ when it comes to flying drones.

Protecting the potential drone industry

Drone technology is at an inflection point right now. It’s entirely possible that 2015 could be what 2007 was for cellphones—drone manufacturers are opening up their devices to third-party developers, new startups are popping up every day around drone technology and hardware, and multinational corporations like Alphabet and Amazon are starting to explore a wide array of potential uses for what are essentially flying computers. To pass legislation that could limit drones’ proliferation among consumers could kill the industry before it takes off, and the FAA seems to be aware of this. That’s why it’s trying to head some lawmakers off at the pass. The registration process will also help minimize any discrepancies that exist in city and state policies toward drones—in some states, it’s ok to shoot down someone else’s drone, and in some cities police can decide that it’s reckless endangerment to fly a drone in public. A national policy would likely supersede those differences between states. “I mean, drones also fly from city to city,” Swanson added.

This registration process will help the FAA educate flyers on how to safely operate the drones they’re going to receive for Christmas, Swanson said, as well as stave off, at least for now, stricter impositions on drones. It’ll also help the FAA figure out who was responsible in any sort of drone-related accident, and the agency will be able to tell local police or whichever other agency that wants to know. It could even potentially deter people who feel inclined to do something silly with a drone if they know their name is on file with the government. Swanson says she’s met with multiple members of the task force, and that they are mostly on board with the proposal. “There aren’t any bomb throwers on that task force.”

How the actual registration process will actually work—or what current drone owners will have to do with the drones they already have—isn’t yet clear. The registration will most likely be free, and done through an online government portal, according to the Journal, rather than through the mail, or at a federal building. Drone owners will likely have to write a registration number on their drones, like a car’s license plate. “You can put it in indelible ink, you can bedazzle it,” one task force member told the Journal. “It just needs to be legible so [authorities] are able to read it.”

But will the government be able to pull off putting together a database of that scale in such a short timeframe? “The thought of half a million or so new drone registrations is just Obamacare all over again,” Swanson said.