By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Aviation Administration, responding to heightened concerns about rogue drone flights near airports, unveiled a pre-Christmas rule on Monday requiring drone hobbyists as young as 13 years old to register their unmanned aircraft.
The new online registry will require current drone owners to register by Feb. 19, while anyone who acquires aircraft after Dec. 21 would need to register before their first outdoor flight. After registering, drone owners will receive an FAA identification number that they must display on aircraft weighing between 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and 55 pounds (25 kgs).
The FAA's online registration site, which will be launched next Monday, will charge drone owners a $5 fee, which officials said is the same charge required for manned aircraft, including Boeing 747 jetliners. To encourage participation, the FAA will waive the fee for the first 30 days that the registry is open.
Federal officials see online registration as one way to address a surge of rogue drone flights near airports and crowded public venues that has raised safety concerns among authorities across the United States.
Two months ago, U.S. officials vowed to have a drone registry in place before Christmas, when unmanned aircraft are expected to be a popular gift, including for teenagers.
Drone experts have warned that registration could face legal challenges.
On Monday, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a group representing hobbyists, warned the new registry could violate a law approved by Congress in 2012 that prohibits the FAA from regulating unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, used by its members.
“AMA is disappointed with the new rule for UAS registration," said AMA Executive Director Dave Mathewson. The group went to court last year to challenge an earlier FAA decision to class small UAS as aircraft. The litigation is still pending.
Under the new regulation, drone owners 13 years and older are required to register their craft, while the parents of younger children must register them.
"Unmanned aircraft operators are aviators and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters in a conference call.
Failure to register can result in a hefty penalty, including civil fines of up to $27,500 and criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and three years in prison.
But FAA officials said they intend to focus on encouraging compliance through a "Know Before You Fly" public education campaign backed by some manufacturers, retailers and local law enforcement.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Bill Trott and Alan Crosby)