Category Archives: Technology

What is a Drone and Why Do Operators have to Register in a Public Database?

Why Do Drone Operators have to Register in a Public Database?

I have been an Airplane pilot for 29 years and have watched the aviation industry go through remarkable changes.  When I started flying GPS technology didn’t exist.  We had to navigate by looking at the contours of the earth using dead reckoning and pilotage, which are basically fancy terms for looking out the window (VFR).  Or we followed rudimentary radio signals to and from a ground-based transmitter if we couldn’t see out the window (IFR). 

The first modern area navigation technology for aircraft was a LORAN that used ground based stations that formed crossing radials from transmitters that could calculate an aircraft’s relative position through triangulation. To use early LORAN’s to navigate, however, was tricky.  Most LORAN systems didn’t have a database.  The pilot would have to key in the longitude and latitude for every waypoint manually.  A mistake could be catastrophic. When databases were incorporated they were stored on an EPROM chip that required a licensed Avionics Technician to update.  Sufficveoftosay, the units were rarely updated and not authorized for use for IFR (in cloud) navigation.  

1966 Cessna 172 with a top of the line LORAN upgrade (Top center)

1966 Cessna 172 with a top of the line LORAN upgrade (Top center)

It is fun looking back on the early days of flying.  Technology in aircraft didn’t materially evolve until the 90’s when a small startup at the time — Garmin — built an affordable GPS unit that could navigate by using Military-use-only satellite signals.  Back then GPS signals were intended to be used only by the US Government and had an intentional offset-error embedded into the signal.  Garmin corrected the offset in their software and paved the way for not only modernizing Aircraft they changed how the world navigates.  The GPS revolution was the first milestone that set the direction that made Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA) possible and started us on the path that decades later that would enable Drone technology.  

2015 Cessna 172 Technically Advanced Aircraft Garmin G1000 Panel

2015 Cessna 172 Technically Advanced Aircraft Garmin G1000 Panel

Drone Evolution   

Mankind has had an interest in flying since the beginning of time.  Flying has been out of the reach for most people.  The cost is high and access to aircraft is limited.  It is no surprise that technology would enable the average person to fly.   

Hobbyist have been piloting remote control aircraft for decades, but the group of of enthusiast has remained relatively small. Typical hobby aircraft are difficult to fly, are expensive, and are actually more difficult to operate than a real plane.  That is until the innovation of the Quadcopter… 

There are three main difference between a traditional hobby airplane/helicopter  and a quadcopter.  First, a quadcopter is inherently stable and easy to operate.  An average person can learn to fly a quadcopter with minimal training.  Second, most quadcopters are equipped with a GPS enabling them to be self-aware of their altitude and location.  A traditional remote controlled airplane must be flown within sight of the operator or it will likely be lost and crash.  A quadcopter can fly well out of the visible range of the pilot and most can navigate themselves back to the starting point and land.  Finally, quadcopters are being mass produced and readily available.  Traditional hobby aircraft were generally only available through specialized stores and require complicated assembly.  

Drone technology, like everything technology, has evolved faster than the government can adapt.  The price of Drones continue to drop making them affordable and well within reach of most anyone who wants one.  

The Drone Challenge

Drones are very  capable aircraft that can be operated by virtually anyone.  From a consumers point of view it is a pivotal time.  Drones have empowered them to not only control flight they can take remarkable photos and videos that would otherwise be impossible.  From the Government’s perspective, Drones have presented challenges they were not prepared for: 

  • A Drone can be transported into National Parks and other areas that are off limits for flight.  
  • A Drone can fly hundreds of feet above ground into the same airspace as traditional aircraft and helicopters.  
  • A Drone can be programmed to fly a pattern well out of the visible and remote control range of the Operator.

Airspace incursion is a big concern for the FAA.  Imagine a police action where there are police and news helicopters flying in close proximity and a neighbor with a drone wants to see the action.  They aren’t communicating with anyone and could easily cause an accident or disrupt an investigation.

Airspace is closed when the President of the United States fly’s in.  A Drone can be carried into an airport and launched without detection.  They could potentially carry explosives or other nefarious items while rapidly and autonomously navigating to its destination with pinpoint accuracy.  

Expanding more on challenges think about aircraft on approach to an airport.  When an airplane is approaching they are flying in an area that should be completely free of other aircraft and obstructions.  Someone could fly a Drone into that airspace simply by not understanding the rules governing where they are.  Approach and Departure incidents cause more injuries and deaths than any other type of Aircraft event.  Someone could legitimately die if a drone crashes through the window of a jet flying 150 miles an hour or stop an engine cold if it is ingested into one at the worst possible time.   

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is Stepping in

There are hundreds of documented incidents where Drone pilots have inadvertently, or in some cases intentionally, broken the law.  They have landed on the White House lawn, crashed over sporting events, nearly missed aircraft on approach, are disturbing wildlife in National Parks, etc., etc.  The FAA is legally required to do something about this.  They regulate all airspace across the United States from the surface through the stratosphere at the edge of space. 

The first step in FAA process of getting control over drones is to get a handle on who actually owns one.  They created an online registration system and did a remarkably good job of making the process easy.  

The FAA registration site opened on December 21, 2015.  All that is required is to navigate to the FAA website, answer some questions, pay $5, and you are licensed.  People that owned Drones before December 15 have been given a grace period until February 19, 2016 to register.  The registration process is backed by Federal law.  The registration of Drone operators is mandatory in the United States.  

The Registration Challenge

The challenge for the FAA is that it is impossible for them to know who owns a Drone.  They can’t contact owners or get safety information to them without knowing who they are.  Drones are not licensed like aircraft, boats or cars.  There is currently no reasonable way to track sales of Drones.  

Over the 2015 Holiday season, the FAA reported 181,100 drones were registered.  However, they estimate that 700,000 were sold.  Without a process to enforce registration at the point of sale like cars, guns, airplanes and boats, it will likely continue to be a challenge to get people to register.  

Related Article: FAA Reported 181,000 Drones Have Been Registered

The FAA is working with Manufacturers to provide an easy means for Drone owners to register and compile a list of buyers for them, but the FAA has no authority to enforce Drone Manufacturers to do anything.  Incorporating registration forms, standardized aircraft registration numbers, etc. will add cost and complexity to something that has up until now been considered a recreational device.  Many of the Drones are manufactured in China and other countries as well that further complicate the FAA’s standardization efforts.  

Another challenge for the FAA is that their database is open to the public.  People that register as a Drone operator is searchable online.  Anyone can go to the FAA site and pull a list of names and address of Drone owners.  Operators are legally required to provide their real Physical address as well.  PO Boxes, Office Addresses and Mail drops are not permitted. 

Pilots, Ham Operators and other Federally licensed people have had to live with their data being out there for decades, but this concept is new for the general population.  People are not accustom to having their personal information available for anyone to find — especially with the daily threats we all see from hackers and identity thieves in the news.  

Will Registration Impact Drone sales? 

I don’t believe registration will have any measurable impact on Drone sales.  They are popular items that will continue to sell.  The problem is for owners that don’t register.  If they get caught flying an unlicensed Drone there can be stiff penalties and possible confiscation of their expensive Drone.  The best course of action is to register your Drone and check that you are ok to fly it in an area before you do.  

The FAA is trying to make flight rules easy to access for non-licensed aircraft pilots that may not be familiar with the rules.  They created an Apple iOS mobile application called B4UFly that shows airspace restrictions to users based on their GPS location.  An Android application is under development.  

Regardless of ones personal position on registration, I highly suggest that drone operators download the app and check it carefully before flying.  It is a good insurance policy in case an operator is questioned by law enforcement.  Having something to validate you can legally fly where you are in hand may prevent a drone from being confiscated. 

A final thought about looking before flying is that localities are implementing laws covering where Drones can be operated that may not be in the FAA database.  Chicago, for example, recently passed a Drone Ordinance that Bans Drones from flying over areas not owned by the operator.   That change effectively makes flying a drone anywhere in the City of Chicago illegal.  

Owning a Drone can be a very rewarding experience, but owner/operators are taking on liability and responsibilities that may be larger than they realize. Homeowner umbrella policies and insurance may not cover operator liability either if they are not in compliance with the law.  Bottom line is to Register your Drone and carefully research an area before you fly.  The risk of not doing so is much greater than the risk of having your personal information on the FAA Website.   

Happy flying! 

Chicago CIO and Entrepreneur. Started @Orbitz, @AssureFlight, Team ITG, YourPrivateLine and others. I Love technology, startups and meeting interesting people.