January 15, 2016

Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft

Before the Federal Aviation Administration
  • Eli Dourado

    Former Senior Research Fellow
  • Samuel Hammond

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Additional details

Agency: Federal Aviation Administration
Proposed: December 16, 2015
Comment period closes: January 15, 2016
Submitted: January 15, 2016
RIN: 2120-AK82
Docket ID: FAA-2015-7396


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued an interim final rule creating a new electronic registration system for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and requiring, for the first time, the registration of model aircraft operators. This comment highlights an omission in the agency’s alternative scenario analysis, questions some of the purported benefits of the rule, and points out some of the continuing legal shortcomings associated with the FAA’s approach. While we support the advent of a simple and streamlined registration system, we object to the extension of the registration requirement to model aircraft operators.

The Technology Policy Program of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University is dedicated to advancing knowledge of the impact of regulation on society. It conducts careful and independent analyses employing contemporary economic scholarship to assess rulemaking proposals from the perspective of the public interest. As such, this comment on the FAA’s interim final registration and marking requirements for small unmanned aircraft does not represent the views of any particular affected party or special interest group but is designed to assist the administration as it carries out Congress’s mandate to safely, efficiently, and legally integrate UASs into the National Airspace System.

Problems with the Regulatory Evaluation

1. The agency fails to consider all regulatory alternatives.

The FAA’s regulatory evaluation of its interim final rule (IFR) is inadequate in many crucial respects. First and most importantly, it does not fulfill the agency’s obligation, under Executive Order 12866, to “assess all costs and benefits of available regulatory alternatives, including the alternative of not regulating.” In particular, the agency ignores the alternative of proceeding with its new electronic registration scheme for drones, but continuing to exempt model aircraft operators from the registration requirement.

This omission is conspicuous. The agency evaluates the benefits and costs of its IFR, of the status quo paper-based registration system, and of an alternative that is paper-based but also imposes a new registration burden on model aircraft operators. There are two parameters that the FAA appears to be considering at the same time: 1) whether to create a new, electronic registration scheme for UAS, and 2) whether to require model aircraft operators to register. These two parameters can be visualized in a 2x2 matrix (table 1), producing four possible alternatives, of which the FAA evaluates three. Yet it is the fourth alternative—in which a new electronic registration scheme is developed, yet without any new burdens on model aircraft operators—that by the FAA’s own estimates has the lowest quantifiable costs.

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