Just in time for 2016, the FAA released a registration system and will require anyone currently operating unmanned aerial systems (UAS), otherwise known as "drones," to register by February 19 of this year. Although the FAA's legal authority over this issue is questionable and although this applies to anyone flying drones only within certain weight guidelines for hobby or recreational use outdoors, there are a number of reasons you should register in the next 10 days, even if these particular circumstances do not apply to you.
1. It's Free, For Now
In order to encourage would-be or current recreational drone operators to register under these new guidelines, the FAA is making drone registration free for the first 30 days of the process' opening. Registration opened December 21, so that gives everyone until midnight on the evening of January 20 to register. Although you still have to provide a credit card (which will be charged five dollars), the fee will be refunded to you (however, it doesn't say when this refund will happen during the process). Five dollars isn't a lot to pay if you miss this deadline (and you should still register if you do for the following nine reasons), but it's nice not to spend any money when you can avoid it.
2. You Don't Even Need to Have a Drone, But It's OK If You Have 10
Brilliantly (Thank you, common sense), the registration process registers you as a recreational drone operator, not each individual drone. So whether you don't have your drone yet or whether you're nearing a dozen, you're only facing one completely free (or at most, $5) registration.
3. It Lasts for Three Years
I don't have a drone yet, but I'm on a pre-order list for a couple and plan to get more as I find products that best suit my intended needs. I'm not worried about when these arrive, however, because my registration will last until 2019. If you're the type that likes to milk every last day, then wait until January 20 to register and give yourself the last possible renewal date that still benefits from a registration fee rebate.
4. Don't Wanna Mess with the G-Men
According to current, surprisingly understandable laws put in place by Congress to protect model aircraft operators, the FAA doesn't seem to have the legal authority to regulate non-commercial drone use. That non-commercial bit means that they do have every right to regulate how you use your drone if you benefit monetarily from work product created with that drone — so don't confuse a "simple" flight for little pay with a "recreational" one. But in terms of recreational use, some could easily argue that the new FAA regulations are unenforceable and beyond the scope of power granted to FAA by Congress.
Still, do you really want to be the one taking the FAA to court as you argue about the fines levied against you? My best advice: let someone else do it, because it'll happen soon enough. In the meantime, try to be nice and understand there are real issues that the FAA is trying to curb with what is currently a free and extremely reasonable process, which brings us to number 5...
5. Registration Is So Damn Easy
I didn't time it, but I'd be lying if I said the entire registration process took me longer than three minutes (would have taken two if I'd had my credit card information handy). You need your address, your name, an email, a half of a halfway decent password, and a credit card. Accept some terms and conditions, and you're done.
6. Compliance Is So Damn Easy
Since you register yourself (and not your drone) you get one identification number that you can, and must, affix to all of your drones in any reasonable way you choose. It has to be in an area accessible without a tool, which means it can be in a battery compartment as long as that compartment clicks open with ease. Write it in with a Sharpie, break out that label-maker you never get the chance to use, or let your five-year-old carve it in with a screwdriver she found in the shed. It all works just fine. But you won't have to send in any information about your new purchases throughout the years as you accumulate, sell, or trade drones (word of advice: make sure you can scratch it out or remove it somehow with ease in case you do get rid of it. You don't want someone else crashing the White House lawn with a drone marked with your ID.
A short bullet-point list of guidelines adds to the ease of understanding what you're supposed to and not supposed to do (and there's even an app to help you identify temporarily and permanently restricted airspace).
7. You Get to Practice
So commercial use is still somewhat up in the air (and by "somewhat up in the air," I mean you still need to have a friggin' legit pilot's license to operate a drone for commercial use until the FAA creates something easier for us). But in the meantime, you can use your drone under a legal safety net that maxes out at an altitude of 400 feet. The FAA does remind you to practice safe flying guidelines like staying away from people, buildings, other flying vehicles, airports, and emergency service operations. But be smart, and you can get all the practice you need before you spring for your commercial "license to drone."
8. You're Forced to Take Responsibility, And That's a Good Thing
Unless your drone completely burns up in a fiery demise, you can and will be held accountable for any actions you take that go beyond the scope of what's afforded you by law and that could or do cause injury to others. Some might say that registration is therefore not in your best self-interest, but that's really only true if any morsel of a code of ethics or morals aren't a part of your self-interest. For most of us good people out there (that might be too optimistic, but I'm going to hope it's not), it's good to promote accepting responsibility for whatever mistakes we make. Either way, if ethics isn't your thing, then the law probably isn't either, in which case it's amazing you're reading this article at all.
9. You Get to Be A Part of Something That Really Helps
Irresponsible drone usage is simply too common. Specific case studies within the FAA's "Interim Final Rule Regulatory Evaluation" on the drone registration and marking issue detail reasons that some regulation is necessary, calling on a number of incidents. A drone crashed on the White House lawn. Another sent debris out that resulted in an 11-month-old girl being treated for head injuries. Another drone delayed firefighting aircraft for 20 minutes in a rapidly growing California wildfire that burned 3,500 acres in four hours on a hot, windy day. That same report estimated the fire could have been contained within less than 100 acres without the 20-minute delay. The list goes on.
By registering yourself as a drone operator and by including your registration ID on your drone, you help promote a safer, better world in which we can operate.
10. You'll Make Better Decisions
There's nothing like just a little pressure to make you check yourself and the decisions you're about to make. Being registered creates a good reason for a second round of asking yourself, "Is this a good idea?" That can be a great measure of prevention for any number of disasters, from losing your drone to causing serious harm to a group of people at an event.