February 14, 2019

FAA Requires Drones to Display External Identification by February 25th Amid Security Concerns

Holland & Knight Aviation Law Blog
Joel E. Roberson

In a new Interim Final Rule (IFR) published on Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires each unmanned aircraft (UA) to display its registration number on the exterior of the aircraft effective Feb. 25, 2019. FAA cited security concerns as a basis for moving directly to a final rule.

Federal law and regulations currently require that small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operating in the National Airspace must be registered with the FAA and the UA must be marked with a registration number. FAA's current small UAS marking requirements in 14 C.F.R. § 48.205 direct UAS operators to ensure that the FAA registration number is affixed to, or marked on, their UAs in a way that is accessible and legible upon inspection. Given the very small size of some UAs, the rules allow for the registration number to be contained in an enclosed compartment, such as a battery compartment, as long as that compartment can be accessed without the use of tools.

The IFR published on Wednesday removes the option to place the registration number in a location where it is not legible upon visual inspection of the exterior of the UA. FAA indicates this action was taken in response to concerns about imminent risk of harm to first responders expressed by members of law enforcement and interagency security partners. As the current rule could require physical manipulation of the UA in order locate the registration number, first responders seeking the identity of a UAS owner in response to a security incident could be exposed to the risk that the small UA (which can weigh up to 55 pounds) could conceal an explosive device.

Due to the imminent risk involved, FAA determined there was good cause to proceed with the rule change without full public notice and comment and with an accelerated effective date, as it would not be in the public interest to place first responders at heightened risk during the lengthy rulemaking process after publicly identifying such a vulnerability. However, FAA is accepting public comments on the rule change until March 15, 2019

While this modification may place a burden on operators with multiple UAS who currently comply with 14 C.F.R. § 48.205 by placing the registration number in a compartment, FAA has found that the security concerns outweigh any minimal burden to operators. Accordingly, affected operators will need to seek solutions that will allow for quick compliance, including temporary options such as stickers and decals, while bearing in mind that the marking needs to be maintained in a legible fashion over the longer term. 

In addition to the IFR, Wednesday's Federal Register contains formal publication of FAA's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft  and Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Safe and Secure Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Pre-publication versions of these rulemaking documents were released by FAA in January during the partial U.S. Government shutdown, but today's publication in the Federal Register sets an official deadline of April 15, 2019 for stakeholders and the public to submit comments on each document.

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