If you own a drone and live in the United States, today is your last day to register with the federal government—at least, if you're planning on complying with its new and controversial regulations for small remote-control aircraft.
Registration is mandatory for all pilots owning drones weighing more than half a pound, and costs $5. It also involves adding your name, address and contact information to a government database, which will soon be publicly searchable by an FAA-assigned registration number via the agency's website.
The rules, introduced by the Federal Aviation Administration in December, have been harshly criticized by hobbyists, who see them as a disproportionate crackdown on a technology whose dangers have been routinely exaggerated.
Which of course leads to the obvious question: What will happen to hobbyist drone pilots that fail to comply?
In all likelihood, the answer is "probably nothing."
The FAA's rules say that pilots failing to register could face up to $277,500 in civil and criminal fines and/or as many as three years in prison. But the FAA needs participation if the regulations are going to have teeth, and so far the entire registration initiative has had an incredibly rocky start.
"The agency illegally bypassed the most basic transparency requirement in administrative law."
Shortly after the FAA announced its rule, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a hobbyist organization for RC aircraft, advised its 185,000 members in the US to hold off registering. The FAA says that 342,000 aircraft have been registered to the database. But that's still less than half of the 1 million new drones the agency estimated would be unwrapped under the tree last Christmas, not to mention the millions of model aircraft that are already in the hands of consumers. In all likelihood, most of those drone owners still don't know the registration requirement exists.
It's also very unclear whether the FAA's rulemaking itself was legal. In an "emergency" effort to push out rules before Christmas, the agency skipped the "notice-and-comment" process that's supposed to precede any new regulations taking effect, arguing that the need for transparency "is outweighed by the significant increase in risk that the public will face" as a large number of Christmas drones quickly populate the skies.
That lack of transparency is a big part of a new lawsuit against the FAA, which was announced yesterday by the nonprofit organization TechFreedom.
"Whether or or not requiring drone registration is a wise policy, the rules the FAA rushed out before Christmas are unlawful," said Berin Szoka, the organization's president, in a statement. "They exceed the authority Congress has given the FAA. Moreover, the agency illegally bypassed the most basic transparency requirement in administrative law: that it provide an opportunity for the affected public to comment on its regulations."
The FAA is also being challenged in a separate lawsuit by a drone hobbyist in Maryland. And legislation attached to must-pass aviation bill in Congress would carve out an exemption to the registration process for drones under 4.4 pounds, a much more reasonable weight threshold.
Unregistered pilots of small drones are probably going to run into trouble at some point. But with the FAA's regulations being challenged the enforcement methods still unclear, they'll probably be okay for now as long as they don't do anything stupid.
Update: This story originally cited a figure for the number of registered drones from January; it has been updated with the figure from February.