Drones, those remote-controlled flying machines, are expected to top many wish lists this holiday season.
Now those who open those gifts will most likely need to tell the federal government.
On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration, scurrying to prepare for hundreds of thousands of more drones flying into the air, released a list of recommendations for how to better monitor recreational use of the machines. Under the proposal, most drone owners would have to register the machines with the federal government, which would place the information in a national database, the first such requirements.
The recommendations, from a task force created by the agency, would be the biggest step yet by the government to deal with the proliferation of recreational drones, which are usually used for harmless purposes but have also been tools for mischief and serious wrongdoing, and pose a risk to airborne jets.
The FAA is widely expected to approve the bulk of the recommendations in the next month, just in time for Christmas.
The government already has rules that limit the use of drones for commercial purposes, like delivering packages. But attention has turned to recreational use more recently, as drones, many of them the size of a laptop computer, have emerged as a must-have item for thousands of people. The Consumer Technology Association, a trade group, has estimated that 400,000 drones will be sold this holiday season in the United States.
"The FAA needs to meet growing political pressure that they do something before an incident that nobody wants to happen, happens," said Anne Swanson, a lawyer at Cooley, a law firm in Washington.
Though drones have existed for years, their popularity has soared of late with improvements in technology and greater interest in photography and filmmaking from the sky. The broader adoption has also raised new questions about privacy, safety and the nuisance of small machines buzzing overhead.
In the last two years, hundreds of complaints have been filed with the FAA on drones striking bystanders at sports stadiums or flying too close to aircraft. Last May, an amateur drone pilot was arrested after flying his machine close to the White House.
In addition to entering the machines into a national database, the task force said, drone owners should display a government-issued registration number on each machine. The group also recommended that owners submit their names and addresses, but said email addresses and phone numbers should be optional. The rules would apply to recreational drones weighing half a pound to 55 pounds.
The FAA would enforce registration rules and oversee the database. The task force recommended that the FAA carve out separate registration-related penalties for drones. Registration violations applying to any aircraft can now exceed $25,000. That amount was established to deter suspected drug traffickers and tax evaders but should not apply to users of small recreational drones, the groups said.
"The task force recommends the FAA expressly establish a reasonable and proportionate penalty schedule that is distinct from those relating to traditional manned aviation," the group said in its report.
The task force did not go as far with its recommendations as some aviation and security experts had hoped. The proposals say owners should not have to submit any information about their aircraft, for example. It also said there should ...(Continued on next page)
not be a requirement for drone users to be citizens or permanent residents.
"The FAA is under tremendous pressure to do something because there is a lot of public concern around drones," said Loretta Alkalay, an aviation lawyer and professor at the Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens, New York. "But I don't think registration solves the main concerns."
She added, "We shouldn't really expect that the people with most nefarious intents would register in the database."
Those complaints highlighted how difficult it has been for regulators to create guidelines for the flying machines. There is passionate disagreement by hobbyists, drone makers, privacy and safety advocates and the aviation industry on how much oversight the government should have and what kinds of machines should be included.
The FAA task force was composed of 25 people, including representatives of drone makers, technology companies, an airline pilots association and government officials. The agency gave them a short time — four weeks — to come up with recommendations on a registration system. The FAA said it would take the recommendations into consideration and then write new rules.
Members of the task force stressed Monday that many compromises were made. The task force wrote in its report that the goal of the registration process was to "ensure accountability by creating a traceable link between aircraft and owner, and to encourage the maximum levels of regulatory compliance by making the registration process as simple as possible."
"We tried to write it in as generic a flavor as possible," Dave Vos, a member of the task force and the head of a drone project at Google X, a business that works on future technologies, said in a conference call.
With the "consensus we reached, everyone is quite happy here," he said.
But privacy groups say simply registering names and addresses will not curb the ability of the machines to snoop on people from above.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group, has pushed for the FAA to require that drones broadcast registration information and that authorities be notified about the surveillance capabilities of their machines. The task force did not address whether the agency should make that sort of rule.
But drone makers and groups representing drone pilots criticized the proposal as going too far. Under the recommendations, they said, the minimum weight for machines that need to be registered, 0.55 pound, is so light it would include toy drones that are not a risk.
"Unfortunately the task force recommendations may ultimately prove untenable by requiring the registration of smaller devices that are essentially toys and do not represent safety concerns," said Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, whose 180,000 members include drone pilots.
The task force said the FAA should keep the registration data private and available only for law enforcement. The group also recommended that the FAA write its registration rules so that the personal information of consumers could not be made public through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Despite many outstanding questions on how the registration process will work, some experts say the real objective is to nudge the public to behave.
"It's ultimately," Swanson said, "about creating a culture of accountability."