Libraries and the New FAA Drone Rules

Tips to keep your patrons informed about the changes

December 17, 2015

Some commercially sold drones can fly as high as 1,600 feet (500 meters), or higher than some of the world's tallest buildings. Composite image created from "Tallest Buildings in Asia in 2014" by Ali Zifan and Freepik, licensed under Creative Commons 4.0
Some commercially sold drones can fly as high as 1,640 feet (500 meters), or higher than some of the world's tallest buildings. Composite image created from "Tallest Buildings in Asia in 2014" by Ali Zifan and Freepik, licensed under Creative Commons 4.0

On December 14, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that all drones—even small toy drones that may already be wrapped up as presents for this holiday season—will have to be registered. Libraries can play a role in educating the public about these new rules.

“Make no mistake,” warned US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in his announcement of the new regulations, “unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility.”

The real concern behind this move is that as toy technology advances, so have the capabilities of the drones that are available for the general public. The Phantom 3 drone, sold for about $700 in camera and video stores for aerial photography, has a regular maximum height limit of 1,640 feet (500 meters). The Empire State Building is a puny 1,250 feet (381 meters) in comparison. It wasn’t until 2004 when Taipei 101, a 101-story skyscraper finally, topped 1,640 feet in architectural height. In other words, my ability to drop a not-totally-unreasonable amount of money to buy a remote-controlled helicopter that can fly as high as some of the tallest buildings in the world could be seen as needing some form of regulatory oversight.

In fact, there are existing regulations and qualification checks for more powerful drones like the Phantom 3. According to the very helpful Know Before You Fly website, drones capable of flying above 400 feet (122 meters) are considered commercial drones, as compared with recreational. Flying a drone for commercial purposes, such as photography, requires an FAA airworthiness certificate and an FAA Certificate of Authorization.

How libraries can help

The change is that now the FAA is lowering the requirements for registration to a much more toylike threshold of drones weighing 0.55 pounds with all flight equipment on board at takeoff. To help new enthusiasts, or parents who are wondering now about a gift they might have purchased, here are some helpful tips libraries might want to share with patrons. Think of this as the next version of libraries helping all the new ebook and tablet owners who have shown up in the past few years.

Drone pilot registration points to share

These helpful hints are drawn from the FAA’s UAS Registration FAQs.

Weight check

  • If the drone weighs more than 0.55 pounds (8.8 ounces / 249 grams) at a flight-ready state (with batteries, cameras, and everything else attached), you will have to register.
  • Most MiniDrones from Parrot (the Airborne line and most of the very small quadcopters) fall under this weight.
  • Popular yet relatively inexpensive midsize drones, such as the UDI UDU818A-1 Discovery Quadcopter, are above the weight limit despite selling for around $80.
  • Once you get above the $150 range, almost all drones will have to be registered. This includes popular midrange drones like the Parrot AR and Bebop drones.
  • Be careful adding additional features to lighter drones; extended batteries (most of the small drones have less than 10 minutes of flight time), cameras, or other cool add-ons might make the weight at takeoff over the limit.

But what if …

  • Even if you’re just using the drone in your backyard, if you are over the weight limit, the FAA says you have to register it.
  • Even if you got the drone last year before this regulation existed, if it exceeds the weight limit, you have to register.
  • Even if the drone is tethered, if it is over the weight limit, it has to be registered.
  • Basically, if what you are sending into the air outside is over the 0.55-pound weight limit, you will have to register it with the FAA or face some rather steep penalties that might not seem as big if you were talking about an airplane but are going to seem a bit much when applied to your unregistered toy. (Spoiler alert: They are a heck of a lot more than the $5 registration fee—up to $27,500 for civil penalties and $250,000 and three years in prison for criminal penalties.)

How to register

  • Starting on December 21, US citizens over age 13 will be able to register their drones at http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/.
  • It is a good idea to do it quickly, because for the first month (until January 20, 2016) the $5 registration fee is either waived or refunded (it says waived in the press release, and refunded on the registration page).
  • Once registered, you will get a unique registration number that you have to mark on the drone in a legible and visible way.

Post-registration fun times

Even after registering a drone, there is a great deal to learn:

So this holiday season, a good thing to have ready at your public library desk might be a helpful sign for patrons to think about the new drones in their families, with links to or printouts of the new FAA regulations and helpful brochures. And don’t worry—when the under-$200 3D printers hit the shelves next holiday season, ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy is already on it.