Unmanned aircraft industry members await details of FAA registration process

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- In a climate of growing reports of unsafe unmanned aircraft flights, the U.S. Department of Transportation in seeking innput on implementing a registration process for the devices -- a move that has local support.

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - In a climate of growing reports of unsafe unmanned aircraft flights, the U.S. Department of Transportation in seeking innput on implementing a registration process for the devices - a move that has local support.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta announced Oct. 19 that the transportation department would be forming a task force to craft recommendations for registering unmanned aircraft. While some in the local unmanned aircraft systems industry have their doubts about the group meeting the Nov. 20 deadline for having recommendations ready, they say they can appreciate the focus on safety.

"Overall, registering provides another layer of safety for everyone," said Doug McDonald, director of special operations for Unmanned Applications Institute International in Grand Forks. "It's not going to keep people from doing bad things, but we can track them, so that's obviously positive."

Al Palmer, director of the UAS Center at the University of North Dakota, also sees the move as a positive though he does expect some pushback from others in the industry.

"I think there's probably going to be a little resistance to that because it's change, and people haven't had to do that before," he said, adding all of UND's unmanned aircraft are already registering with the FAA, which is under the umbrella of the federal transportation department.


The FAA also requires those holding an exemption to operate commercially to register their unmanned aircraft.

Matt Dunlevy, president of SkySkopes in Grand Forks, said he just hopes his company isn't required to go through another registration process, describing the first one it completed for the FAA as "nightmarish."


Safety goal


The creation of a registration process comes at a time where unmanned aircraft are making headlines for mishaps such as flying through restricted zones or crashes resulting in damage and injury.

Recently, the FAA released a report of near-misses and sightings of unmanned aircraft by pilots, airport personnel and others from November 2014 to August 2015. During that stretch, 764 incidents were reported.

Twenty-seven of those incidents were explicitly described as near-midair collisions.


Safety is one aspect of developing a registration process, another part of the push stems from the potential of thousands of unmanned aircraft being given as presents during Christmas this year.

"Their intentions are good," Dunlevy said of the transportation department's efforts. "I hope that this unfolds well and serves as a deterrent to those that violate the rules and serves as an educational experience to people who are going to go out and buy these."

Who the burden of registration falls to is still unclear, as it could be determined to be the responsibility of retailers rather than customers.

"How is that going to impact commerce?" McDonald asked.

And then there's the issue of aircraft already owned that are not registered as the property of a public agency or a commercial entity and how those would be retroactively added to a registration database.

As for registering aircraft, Dunlevy wondered if the current registration format would have to change with an influx of unmanned aircraft that some estimates say could number 1 million.

Presently, each aircraft in the register in the United States is given an N-number, which are used to track aircraft and their movements.

The format of current N-numbers limits the amount of potential combinations, leaving Dunlevy to wonder if this format would change to keep from running out of registration numbers.



Task force work


The task force will have to answer those questions and more as it prepares its recommendations.

In addition to federal government representatives, unmanned aircraft advocates also will have seats on the task force.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics and Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International both announced last week that leaders will be representing members' interests on the task force.

Together, the two groups have 187,500 members, the overwhelming bulk of which is made up by AMA.

Local industry members are reassured by both groups having a presence on the taskforce, which will include 25 to 30 participants.

"I think the people that need to be at the table that are there, like AUVSI and AMA, and are working with the FAA to make it ideally as palatable and easy for everyone to use and utilize," McDonald said.

Of concern nationally and locally is how the registration process will define aircraft in terms of size and capability.

Unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds are considered small UAS by the FAA, but within that definition is an abundance of shapes and sizes.

Some aircraft are small enough to hold in the palm of a hand while others have diameters spanning three feet.

Then there are radio-controlled aircraft flown recreationally by hobbyists, a group represented by AMA. AMA has its own registration system in place for members, which asks them to place his or her AMA number or name and address on or within their aircraft.

In a statement last Monday, AMA Executive Director David Mathewson said his organization did not want the registration process to "become a prohibitive burden for recreational users who fly for fun and educational purposes and who have operated harmoniously within our communities for decades."

The presence of the model aircraft and other unmanned aircraft in the airspace no matter the size is still a safety concern for some.

"I think people are going to say, 'These are just a toy,''' Palmer said. "The problem is those toys are in the national airspace and they haven't had any accidents yet, but there have been some close calls. How long is it going to be before those close calls become a collision?"

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