Can I Get My Drone Registration Money Back?


All I can say is, I want my $28 back. That’s what the FAA dinged me when I registered my drone, probably because I checked the commercial-use box. Or for some other reason I wasn’t paying attention to. Now, as you’ve read, a court has declared the FAA registration program null and void because it violates the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

Here’s the specific language and it’s unambiguous. “SEC. 336. SPECIAL RULE FOR MODEL AIRCRAFT. (a) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft, if—(1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use.”

This could not be any plainer. John A. Taylor’s legal challenge of the regulation was thus a slow pitch that an appeals court for the D.C. circuit smashed out of the park, leaving months of work by the agency as just so much bureaucratic detritus. How could the FAA lawyers have missed this? My guess is they didn’t miss it, but thought their broad authority to regulate everything that flies would suffice to defeat a challenge. Or, they knew the regulation was on an indefensible legal foundation and would be challenged. And this will force Congress to rewrite the law, perhaps to give the FAA broader statutory authority with regard to drones.

This is not necessarily a good thing because whenever you give Congress the opportunity to write new statutory basis for regulation, you never know what you’re going to get and it’s even odds you’ll get something worse. So that’s where we might be heading.

Ignoring the underlying statutory basis for registration for a moment, there are two salient questions here: Does the proliferation of drones represent a realistic threat to public safety and would regulating these aircraft reduce that risk? This begets a third question: Is there a better way to deal with drones?

In my opinion, drone proliferation does represent a risk to the public and, as a subset, a threat to pilots and passengers of manned aircraft. I think the risk is small and totally overblown by many pilots, but it’s inarguable that the risk is greater than zero. To the question of whether drone registration can enhance safety by forcing a would-be drone pilot with no aviation experience to slog through a form citing chapter and verse on basic regulation, I circle back to the third question. What’s the better way of doing this? Does it even have to be done at all?

As is my wont, I’d address this by first trying to understand the risk. Is there any data to look at? Any accident pattern? Any serious statistical study of the collision risk for aircraft or for people on the ground? No, there isn’t. It’s all anecdotal and thus there’s a tendency to measure the risk in the worst possible way: emotionally. The risk is twofold. What’s the probability of a collision and what are the consequences if one occurs?

At AUVSI’s Xponential two weeks ago, there were several technical sessions on counter-drone technology. This is such a hot topic that 65 companies are plying the counter-drone market. Not many products are available or being sold, but the interest is there. In one panel, Lt. Brook Rollins, who heads the drone division for the Arlington, Texas, police department, was asked about specific incidents involving drones. Finally, I thought, someone will give us direct reports on the menace this new technology represents.

Nope. Rollins said all the reports were anecdotal sightings and complaints, with no direct specifics. The same can be said of the hundreds of drone “sightings” the FAA says it’s getting from pilots. There were 1274 of these for an eight-month period in 2016 or about five a day.Few—maybe none—are buttressed by anything remotely resembling actual verifiable data. But the sheer number of sightings and the 820,000 drones the FAA has already registered play better in press reports to suggest an out-of-control risk to civilization that Congress is inevitably urged to do something about. It flirts with the definition of mass hysteria.

And it will eventually get more complicated and difficult when Amazon and others start to fly delivery drones at low altitude and local communities attempt their own regulation to assuage noise and privacy complaints. There’s little established law to address any of this. It’s likely to be written, if you will, on the fly. With the heavy hand of regulation, the FAA is attempting to normalize what is in no way normal. Or if it is normal, it’s normal that any new technology as fundamentally disruptive as small drones are will ignite chaos and we are living through a storm of it with no easy solutions in sight.

About a year ago, just after the FAA put the registration requirement in place, the Heritage Foundation empaneled a group of experts to talk about drone registration from the perspective of ineffective over-regulation. John Taylor, who won the suit against the FAA, was on the panel. You can see the entire discussion here. If any consensus emerged it was that the risk is overstated and registration is too burdensome. I agree with the former, but doubt the latter. A $5 fee and 10 minutes online isn’t a burden worth complaining about. ($28 is another matter.) I take the point that the enforcement penalties may be a little harsh for the felonious “crime” of flying an unregistered drone.

But if registration is not effective in achieving anything, it’s then just a waste of time. Initially, I thought registration was an acceptable means of forcing drone operators to read through requirements and restrictions—which the registration process does—and even though it was done mainly for optics, it was an acceptable tradeoff. It at least promised to make otherwise ignorant buyers somewhat cognizant of the rules and the risks, the ins and outs of airspace and the concerns of others.

But now I think there’s a better way. At the point of sale—that is, in the box—include an easy-to-read document that explains the rules and offers an online training course. Yeah, not that many people will read it or go online, but many are blowing off registration, too. And we are essentially criminalizing people for failure to comply.

As I’ve said before, the rest of it falls into the nature of risk from new technologies measured against the benefits. It’s no different than cars replacing horses or trucks replacing carriages. We learned to accept that car crashes were an unavoidable collateral downside of cars and the same will have to happen with drones, mitigated by what actually happens in the real world. In other words, adjust the regulations to suit the evolving reality of the threat. Thus far, the drone fatality record remains unblemished. And a lot more people were and are killed by cars than will ever be killed by drones, including the kind that shoot things.