The FAA Joins The War On Christmas

Eric Lieberman Advocate, Young Voices
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Hundreds of thousands of unmanned aircraft systems, otherwise known as drones, are expected to be purchased this holiday season. Once only affordable for governments or large corporations, drones are now available in a variety of sizes and are completely free to use for recreational purposes — or so we thought.

The Federal Aviation Administration has decided to impose some of the most worthless and absurd regulations on even the smallest and most innocuous drones.

First, the federal government wants you to formally register your recreational flying machines. This may not seem like a huge impediment to your enjoyment of this innovative technology, but the registration process and requirements are counterintuitive and ridiculous.

According to a press release made public last week, all people who are “owners of small unmanned aircraft (UAS) weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams)” must comply with the registration process. The process itself may not seem excessively arduous, but it is simply ridiculous that relatively tiny “drones”, which are more analogous to model airplanes, will require registration with the government.

But the absurdity doesn’t stop there.

According to the FAA’s press release, “any owner of a small UAS” who has operated and owned a “model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015” is obliged to register by February 19, 2016. Any failure to obey the guidelines will result in civil fines and criminal penalties ranging from $27,500 to $250,000, and imprisonment for up to three years.

What this means is that any drone or model aircraft, whether acquired months or even years before, must be registered with the federal government. And failure to do so will cripple hobbyists, and potentially land them in prison. How they plan on implementing such draconian regulations remains to be seen.

But wait, there’s more.

Despite the FAA having months, even years, to come up with a reasonable regulatory foundation, they have decided to rush out a set of last minute regulations in time for the holiday season. As their press release explains, the FAA’s rigid guidelines were set for the purpose of educating the influx of people who will soon attempt to enjoy this new technology.

But these regulations will apply to drones that are as small as a person’s hand. It doesn’t make much sense that the operators of these products, who are permitted to be as young as 13, have to yield to 211 pages of information before operation.

The proposed regulations also raise legitimate privacy concerns since the federal government’s ability to protect stockpiles of personal information is dubious at best — their cybersecurity capabilities have been exposed on a number of occasions.

While the registration process can be conducted online, it’s not too farfetched to assume that the FAA has essentially created a “DMV for drones”. And if in the future drone regulations become more complex, consumers may be faced with the same frustration and heartache that has become synonymous with the DMV. As Ryan Hagemann, Director of Technology Policy at the Niskanen Center stressed, a “‘show us your papers’ approach to regulating drones is bad for hobbyists, bad for journalists,” and will ultimately curtail innovation in the business sphere.

The FAA did not fully address commercial use of UAVs in these regulations. But if the government wants to impose such harsh restrictions for recreational drone use, we can only imagine how overly-burdensome the regulations will be for profit-seeking drone use.

This is a shame because opportunities for the commercial utilization of drones exist in so many areas, ranging from agriculture to real-estate. At least countries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have made the proper distinction between recreational and commercial use by not requiring registration for the former.

Fortunately for Americans, the FAA will be more than hard-pressed to figure out the best means for implementation of their onerous regulations. So consumers shouldn’t worry too much. Drones are still a fantastic gift for this holiday season.

Eric Lieberman is a Young Voices Advocate, public policy researcher with an emphasis in technology and comparative politics, and writer based in Washington, DC.