No flight test necessary for drone pilots, says FAA task force

Inching closer to a national registry for drone pilots, the FAA just got recommendations from its drone task force. A flight test isn't on the list.

No flight test and free registration for drone pilots. Those are two of the recommendations handed down by an FAA task force appointed by the Department of Transportation in October to develop a coherent process for registration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), including hobbyist drones.

The FAA has been slow to adopt rules on registering drones, which has caused frustration and uncertainty for drone pilots and public safety advocates alike. To date, the FAA's rules on hobbyist class drones (those under 55 pounds) have been broad. In essence: stay below 400 feet, keep the drone within your line-of-sight, and don't fly around airports and stadiums.

(Here's the FAA's current list of drone dos and don'ts.)

But after several high-profile incidents (Note to pilots: The White House lawn is off limits and best to keep clear of firefighting planes), tighter regulation has been a foregone conclusion.

"They're under a lot of pressure to solve these problems and get ahead of the curve with safe regulations," says Tyler Collins, a managing director at PrecisionHawk, which is working alongside the FAA and other private companies to develop an air traffic control system for drones.

Meanwhile, the hobbyist drone market continues to grow like crazy. The Consumer Technology Association anticipates 400,000 drones will be sold here over the holidays.

With tens of millions of drones already in private hands, one of the big questions that's been lingering over rule making considerations is how the FAA might go about retroactively mandating registration of individual UAS. The biggest takeaway from the Saturday's report, and a likely relief for drone owners and regulators alike, is that the task force's recommendation is for a single registration number for every pilot, regardless of the number of drones he or she owns.

Here are the major bullet points from the task force recommendation, which are available for download.

The task force is recommending:

  • Anyone who owns a drone, either store bought or homemade, weighing between .5 and 55 pounds will have to register as a pilot
  • Registration should be free;
  • Registration should be handled online;
  • Name and physical address are the only datum that should be collected, although the task force is also recommending that pilots be at least 13 years old;
  • Pilots indelibly write their registration number on each of their drones (although there is also a recommendation that serial numbers will be sufficient if the pilot submits them to the FAA during registration);
  • The FAA should develop a clear and proportionate penalty framework.

It's important to point out that the task force, which is co-chaired by FAA drone czar Earl Lawrence and the head of Google's drone efforts Dave Vos, is not a rule-making committee. There are still no rules regarding drone registration. The FAA will review the task force's recommendations alongside public comments on the subject and submit finalized rules down the road. There is no firm timetable for when that might happen, and it would be optimistic to assume a registration system will be up and running by Christmas.