What Happens If I Don’t Register My Drone with the FAA?

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As of December 2017, all drones need to be registered with the FAA regardless of whether they will be flown for fun or for commercial activities. This requirement was signed into law following a brief period where it became unclear whether recreational drone pilots needed to register their drones. However, that phase is over. With this new requirement, many new drone pilots have been asking: what is the penalty if I don’t register my drone? Let’s take a detailed look at the relevant laws to find out.

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A bit of history

The first ruling regarding registration of drones came about on February 2016. This was in response to the rising sales numbers of drones, prompting the FAA to create a system of accountability and tracking of such drones. According to the initial ruling, all drones that weighed more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds had to be registered with the FAA. For a period of time, this requirement by the FAA became the status quo, and drone pilots had no choice but to comply.

Recreational drone pilots took issue with the requirement, as they deemed the law unnecessarily restrictive and anti-freedom. On May 2017, a court ruling regarding an appeal for the review of the FAA orders was decided in the favor of drone operators. Specifically, the decision argued that the FAA rules on drone registration were in conflict with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which mandated that the FAA did not have the power to create rules or regulations concerning model aircrafts. The court further ruled that unmanned aircrafts or “drones” used recreationally were classified under the umbrella of “model aircrafts”.

This gave recreational drone pilots reprieve from the FAA regulations. The FAA was even ordered to refund the $5 fee they have charged for recreational drone pilots who had already undergone the process of drone registration. For a moment, it seemed that recreational drone pilots have won the battle.

The reprieve turned out to be very temporary. Things suddenly changed on December 2017, when President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization of 2017. Among other provisions, it required all drone pilots to register with the FAA. Thus, the status quo was reverted to that before the May 2017 ruling. As of writing, the rules are clear: all drones that weight more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds, regardless of whether they will be used recreationally or commercially, need to be registered with the FAA.

The registration process

The good thing about the registration requirement of the FAA is that it doesn’t take a lot of time, money, or effort. Simply head over to the FAADroneZone and look for the registration link. You must be at least 13 years of age and have a valid email address. Once you have provided this information, you will be sent a link to provide your billing address and to pay the $5 registration fee.

Upon registration, you will be issued an FAA registration number which you must attach to all of your drones. At this point, we need to clarify that the term “drone registration” is a misnomer – it is you that are registering, and not the drone. This means that you will only need one FAA registration number, even if you have own multiple drones.

The penalties

What could possibly happen if you fly your drone without being registered. We’ll let the actual words of the FAA explain this:

“Failure to register an unmanned aircraft that is required to be registered may result in regulatory and criminal penalties. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.”

As you can see, the FAA appears pretty serious in requiring drone registration. Realistically speaking, if you are just an average playing around with a drone in your backyard, then you probably won’t have the FAA knocking on your door. However, if you figure in a drone-related accident and the FAA finds out that you have not registered as a drone pilot, then you could be in a lot of trouble.

Why register anyway?

The best answer to this question is that registering is so easy that we cannot see any reason for a drone pilot not to do it. The whole process can literally be done in 5 minutes and only costs $5. This amount of effort is not commensurate to the amount of penalties or inconvenience that you can possible incur if the FAA hears about you flying a drone without being registered.

Beyond just the lack of effort involved, most drone pilots have actually been very supportive of the FAA’s requirement for drone registration. With drones increasingly becoming more common, public perception of the technology has not exactly been positive across the board.

A lot of people have expressed concerns over privacy, security, and safety when drones are flying around. These concerns are all valid, especially considering how drones are now flying farther than ever and are equipped with much better cameras.

Anticipating all this negative backlash, the FAA decided to step in and create a system where drone pilots can be held accountable and responsible for any consequences of their drone flight activities. With drone registration in place, any drone can be traced to its owner, who is ultimately the liable party if the drone has caused any disturbance.  This has forced drone pilots to be more careful, and to be more discerning of when they have started intruding into other people’s spaces.

Final thoughts

Following a brief period of ambiguity, the rules on drone registration are now crystal clear: all recreational and commercial need to be registered with the FAA. This requirement was not made by the FAA to infringe on the freedom of recreational drone pilots. Rather, it was made to make drone pilots accountable for their actions, and to ensure that their activities do not infringe on the rights of other people to security and privacy.