Upward of 1 million people will receive drones as Christmas gifts this year. These remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft come equipped with GPS software and high-definition cameras.
This year, they also come with a lump of coal, courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Last week, the FAA launched a new drone registry. As of today, everyone who owns a drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds will be required to register it. If drone owners register their aircraft by Jan. 20, 2016, the FAA will wave the $5 registration fee. Failure to register a drone could result in up to three years in jail, $27,500 in civil penalties and $250,000 in criminal fines. Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime.
The registry will include drone owners' names, addresses and email addresses, and each owner will receive a certificate of registry and an ID number that must be displayed on their aircraft. The FAA says it is enacting the registry to encourage safety among responsible drone owners, and to make others think twice before using their drones for dangerous or illegal purposes.
Responsible drone ownership is a worthy goal. Drones shouldn't be used to illegally spy on others or disrupt efforts to fight wildfires, and they certainly shouldn't be flown near airports or air traffic.
The FAA's rushed and ill-conceived plan, on the other hand, will do little to prevent any wrongdoing.
The FAA's registry flies in the face of a law passed by Congress in 2012 that bans the agency from regulating all model aircraft (including drones) when they are used for recreational purposes. The agency has also dragged its feet in coming up with regulations for commercial drones — something Congress has actually mandated — opting instead for a comprehensive registry that should generate millions of dollars in fees.
The FAA says the registry will help the federal government regulate drones, but the agency has no blanket system for tracking drone purchases, and those who purchase drones specifically to engage in dangerous and illegal activities can't be expected to register their aircraft. No, the only purpose the registry will serve is to punish innocent people who fail to register their drones, and nothing more.
For heaven's sakes, Washington doesn't need to keep even more records on Americans and empower another federal agency to intrude on citizens' personal lives. Besides, the federal government has proved itself a lousy custodian of personal data.
Instead of relying on the FAA to swoop in and solve the problem, the drone industry should proactively act to address safety issues on its own. For example, drone makers should use software and GPS to prevent drones from flying near airports.
The FAA drone registration mandate is more regulatory overreach.
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