TECH

If 1 Million People Get New Drones This Holiday, Registering Them Better Be Easy

Let's hope consumers won't end up frustrated at the "Department of Drone Vehicles."

The feds would like drone drivers and their devices to get a license plate and registration, please.

If the United States government really will follow through on plans to set up a functional drone registry by Christmas, the registration process needs to be extremely easy for drone owners to complete. Why? Americans are expected to unwrap a million new drones during the holidays, meaning a ton of people will need to apply. 

How, exactly, that process will work still isn't clear, but a new report offers a starting point for untangling what consumers might expect -- and it doesn't sound too bad. 

Submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Nov. 21 and published online Monday, the report contains recommendations from a task force set up by the U.S. Department of Transportation and FAA to work out the details of how people would register their unmanned aircraft systems

The report outlined three basic steps for drone owners to follow: 

  1. Use a website or smartphone application to register the drone(s) for free.
  2. Receive a certificate for registration and a personal universal registration number to use on all drones the person owns.
  3. Mark that number on all the drones that person owns, prior to operating them.

The task force's report also recommends the registration of small drones weighing 250 grams (8.8 ounces) or more. This means that everything but the smallest, cheapest toys are likely to require registration. The rationale for the weight threshold is that a heavier drone presents a sufficient enough risk for other aircraft and for people and property -- if it falls -- that it should be clear who owns the device.

If the FAA adopts these recommendations, it could be good news for parents planning ahead for the holidays. Some toys exist in a gray area: Because of their flying capabilities, it's unclear whether the government would consider them drones or a fancier version of the balsa wood gliders of yesteryear. The weight threshold would clearly include many consumer-grade drones, like the 4-pound Parrot 2, and more powerful DIY, prosumer or professional devices.

But if the task force's new recommendations are accepted, some of the lightest toys won't qualify, and parents won't have to worry about going through the hassle of registering. 

DIY Drones founder Chris Anderson, for example, plans to give a Flutterbye fairy toy to his daughter this holiday and tweeted his concerns about whether the item qualifies as a drone. The Flutterbye weighs 5 ounces, making it slightly lighter than the weight required for registration -- so even if the FAA were to classify this as a drone (let's score that as unlikely) it wouldn't need to go in the registry. 

Weight aside, this toy isn't capable of sustained autonomous flight or remote operation. If the descendants of insect-like drones that the military and universities are researching today get into consumer hands, more than weight could matter.

That future headache aside, rushing out a national registration system this quickly is likely to be bumpy and may, in turn, create other problems -- from technical issues to civil liberties concerns. 

If the federal government approaches building the drone registration system as it did Healthcare.gov, this isn't going to go well.

If the FAA applies the lessons learned there and works with the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, Uncle Sam's in-house development shop, maybe it'll be able to pull off deploying a simple web service that works.

If it doesn't, thousands of consumers will be left frustrated at the "Department of Drone Vehicles" this holiday season.

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