Drone Hobbyists Need to Calm Down About Registration

Wednesday December 23, 2015

There’s been some outrage over the terms of the new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone registry. The key thing is that the registry will make owner’s addresses and names available to the public. Despite the outrage, this is the best solution for managing the registry.

Airspace is not owned by the property owner beneath it. As a general rule, you can build up to 199 feet, then you need the permission of the FAA. The airspace above land is considered a common pool resource. This is because it is not excludable, that is, it is difficult to prevent someone from using the airspace, as recent examples have shown. But it is rivalrous because two planes cannot very well occupy the same space. There’s a limit, but it is hard to enforce closure otherwise. Accordingly, the FAA has exclusive authority to regulate the airspace, in the United States.

Airplanes can fly through it by registering with the FAA. This makes air travel work. Imagine if a pilot had to call the owner of each property they fly over in order to make a flight. Economists prefer friction-free markets, so dedicating the airspace to public minimizes friction. And if you have an airplane, your registration is online. Searching for N370S, the first result from a GIS for “n-number airplane.” The argument goes, however, that amateur drone operators should not be subject to the same requirements and the attendant privacy violations. Well, that hasn’t worked historically.

Another common pool resource is telecommunications spectrum, managed by the FCC. Like airspace, spectrum is very hard to close off. I’ve built my own transmitters from parts costing less than a couple of dollars. It’s not hard. But two transmitters cannot occupy the same spectrum space at the same time. We’ve all heard interference on the radio and understand that. Spectrum is managed by the FCC in a very similar way as airspace is the FAA. You can use it, often for very cheap. You just need to let everyone know what’s going on. This is to help resolve problems which creep up not through malfeasance but the fact common pool resources are difficult to work in.

Like the drone hobbyists, I am an amateur radio operator. I have a license from the FCC. I rarely use it, but that’s not the point. My callsign, assigned by the FCC, at my request, is K3JPH. And my information is readily available online. Right there in the FCC database is my name and address, just like the FAA is planning to do with the drone hobbyists. This system has been online for a couple of decades and was in print for decades before that. The world didn’t stop turning. It’s the cost of using a resource that belongs to all of us. The drone hobbyists need to realize that with their toys comes an obligation to everyone else. And it’s not even that big of one.

Image by Don McCullough / Flickr.