Drone owners get Christmas surprise from FAA

NEW YORK: Buyers beware! If that drone you find under the Christmas tree weighs much more than half a pound, you are going to have to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before you fly it outside. The FAA and Department of Transportation (DoT) announced new rules on December 14 that will mean nearly all drone operators will have to register their drones in a national database.

The authorities have been attempting to crack down on unlicensed drones amid their rising popularity – they are expected to be one of this Christmas’s biggest toys. But drones have been seen as a major menace and have disrupted firefighting efforts, been used to snoop on neighbours and to smuggle drugs into prison (not to mention regularly flying too close to manned aircraft).

The new rules cover all drones weighing more than 0.55lb (0.25kg) and take effect on December 21. A significant number of Christmas toys may be affected – and quite a few children may need to get their parents to register for them, because licensed drone pilots must be over 13 years of age. Drone owners who began flying their quadcopter vehicles before that date will have until February 19 to comply.

New drone toys are notably light – the box containing the largest radio-controlled flying Millennium Falcon toy weighs barely 1.7lb, according to the manufacturer, Spinmaster, and that includes the remote. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a customer service representative could only give the weight of the vehicle and its controller.

Some of the smaller vehicles may squeak under the limit – but many more, especially professional-quality drones designed to be used as floating cameras, will need to be registered.

The loophole through which toy manufacturers may try to squeeze is that the DoT is only requiring licenses for drones flown in the national airspace, and drone toys all come with warnings saying to use them only indoors.

“With this rapid proliferation of new sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems) will come an unprecedented number of new sUAS owners and operators who are new to aviation and thus have no understanding of the NAS (national airspace system) or the safety requirements for operating in the NAS,” wrote regulators in the rulemaking.