In a press conference earlier today, the US Department of Transportation announced its plan to require the registration of drones operating in the National Airspace. Their plan involves forming a task force that will ideally create a set of rules to register drones by mid-December. However, this announcement, like many regulatory attempts before it, adds complexity to the regulatory landscape while answering few of the questions required to create a safe and effective industry.
Altogether, today's announcement lacked much substance. Creating a system for registering drones sounds simple, but what even counts as a drone? That question itself is something that the industry has been struggling with for a long time. Too broad of a scope can destroy harmless consumer and toy industries, too narrow of a scope doesn't solve the problem, and too much complexity reduces the effectiveness of the requirement. The word drone has been used for everything from a paper airplane to a 100 million dollar military aircraft. The hard part is creating meaningful distinctions in between this range, which no one has figured out yet.
Even if the registration issues are addressed, another huge question is whether the DoT and the FAA can actually enforce these regulations. By some estimates, there are already over a million drones in the United States, with another million to be sold by Christmas. The cost of comprehensive enforcement would be massive, and it is doubtful that the DoT has the desire to build out a force of "drone police." However, without any sort of enforcement mechanism to put teeth into these requirements, most drone users will probably opt out of registering their aircraft.
Going one step further, even if the DoT can enforce these rules and create a comprehensive database of drone owners, it still isn't clear how effective this will be in preventing misuse of the technology. Though the physical drone has been recovered in a few incidents, of the hundreds of "near misses" reported by airline pilots, few if any drones have been found after the report, meaning that a registration database would be useless. Once the drone is found, there is still the question of who is liable, the pilot or the registered owner?
These are just a few of the questions that have to be addressed before this law can even be truly understood. It is universally recognized that a comprehensive system of regulations to make the skies safe, legal, and useful is both necessary and good. But creating a task force to add an additional set of regulations only makes the already cryptic set of laws more confusing, and doesn't yet serve to make the skies safer. Hopefully the proposal will actually come on time on November 20, and hopefully it will answer some of these questions. But until the rubber meets the road and these questions are answered, this proposal only serves to make the rules harder to follow.