Federal regulators said Monday they will require the owners of many drones to register the aircraft with aviation authorities amid growing reports of near misses between the unmanned aircraft and regular air traffic.
Pilot sightings of unmanned aircraft have doubled since last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, with reports of drones near airplanes and at major sporting events. There also have been reports of interference with wildfire-fighting operations.
"These reports signal a troubling trend," Federal Aviation Administration chief Michel Huerta said, adding that registration will increase pressure on drone operators to fly responsibly.
"When they don't fly safely," he said, "they'll know there will be consequences."
The move comes as the Consumer Electronics Association predicts that 700,000 drones will be sold this holiday season. The government, which has lined up several drone and pilot industry groups behind the effort, created a task force to spell out specific rules. Still, questions remain about how the requirement will be enforced and how much help it will be in tracking down operators who fly dangerously.
Terry Kilby, the co-owner of the Baltimore drone photography company Elevated Element, said the proposal sounds good on paper, but questioned whether pilots will be able to identify tail-numbers on drones in midair to report them to authorities.
"I have the feeling that this is a bad gut reaction to them realizing how many of these things are going to be going under Christmas trees this year," he said.
The FAA now receives about 100 reports a month from pilots who say they've seen drones flying near planes and airports, compared with only a few sightings per month last year. There have been no accidents, but agency officials have said they're concerned that a drone weighing only a few pounds could cause serious damage if it smashed into an airliner's windshield or was sucked into an engine.
Toys and small drones that don't present a safety threat are likely to be exempt from the requirement. Drones that weigh only a pound or two, or that can't fly higher than a few hundred feet, are considered less risky; heavier ones and those that can fly thousands of feet pose more of a problem.
It is difficult to identify drones seen operating illegally near airports and planes or over crowds. Registration by itself won't change that, but it would allow the FAA to identify drones when they can be recovered after landing or crashing — a common occurrence.
Earlier this year, drones operated illegally crashed onto the White House lawn and at the New York stadium where the U.S. Open Tennis Championships were being held. In both cases, the drone operators came forward. But if they hadn't, the government might have had no way to identify them.
"There can be no accountability if the person breaking the rules can't be identified," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
In at least one Maryland case, authorities say they were able to catch pilots in a troubling incident. Authorities have charged three men — one of them a prison inmate — in an alleged plot to smuggle contraband using a drone.Two of the men were stopped as they were about to make a flight, police have said.
There's no official count on how many drones have been sold in the United States, but industry officials say the number is in the hundreds of thousands and will easily pass a million by the end of the year.
Foxx said he has directed the task force to deliver its report by Nov. 20 and hopes to have registration requirements in place by mid-December. He said the timeline is tight, but the urgency of the problem demands swift action.
It's especially important that new drone users be taught the responsibilities that come with flying, Foxx said.
The FAA is in the middle of a multiyear process to lay out rules for drone flights. Monday's announcement about new regulations will add an extra layer of complexity for people who want to use the aircraft.
Ross Shaffer, co-owner of the photography firm SkyeCam Productions, teaches three-day classes for new drone owners. The first day focuses on following the rules — and it's not until the third day that students actually get airborne.
While new rules can be confusing, Shaffer said, he supports efforts to bring more order to the skies.
"I'd like to see the hobby stay alive and I'm going to hope that people stay within the regulations and get registered," he said.
People who fly drones commercially are already required to register them with the FAA as though they were manned aircraft, meaning the new rules will likely have the greatest impact on hobbyists.
Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy for Model Aeronautics, said registering drones that pose safety risk makes sense.
"But it should not become a prohibitive burden for recreational users who fly for fun and educational purposes and who have operated harmoniously within our communities for decades," he said in a statement.
The Air Line Pilots Association — whose members are often the ones involved in close calls — and members of Congress have been calling for drone registration.
"This is a simple and necessary tactic to immediately identify the owner and drive home" the importance of safety rules, said Tim Canoll, president of the pilots union.
There are also technological approaches that could help authorities manage drones. Some new models come with code that allows them to fly only in accordance with FAA rules, for example.
The FAA signed an agreement last month with CACI International, an information technology company in Arlington, Va., to test technology that could locate the operators of small drones that are flying illegally near airports. The technology would let the government track radio signals used to operate drones within a 5-mile radius and identify the operator's location.