Monday’s official launch of the federal registration database for drones has intensified the push to get regulations in order before the Christmas rush puts tens of thousands of new aircraft in the sky, a push that has raised questions for small airports such as Concord Municipal Airport, as well as private airstrips and even heliports like the one at Concord Hospital.
The issue is the existing federal law requires anybody who flies a drone for fun within 5 miles of any airport to contact that airport in advance, so pilots taking off or landing won’t be taken by surprise. Rules are somewhat different when drones are flown for business reasons.
Larger airports such as Manchester-Boston Regional Airport have a control tower operated 24 hours a day, but smaller airports like Concord aren’t open all the time, so it’s not clear whom to call.
“We’re still trying to work out with the city of Concord how to handle that,” said David Rolla, airport manager of the city-owned facility. A 5-mile radius from this airport covers much of Concord and Pembroke and parts of Bow.
The problem is even more extensive than this, however, because the notification requirement may also cover private airstrips and helicopter pads, of which there are more than 100 in New Hampshire. A half-dozen private airfields are registered with the state in the Concord area, including some in Bow, Dunbarton, Franklin and Loudon, as well as municipal airfields and helipads at most hospitals. The state also has 25 public access airports, such as the ones in Concord and Laconia.
The question is: If on Christmas morning somebody unwraps what is officially called an unmanned aerial systems or UAS, do they need to go through the state database at gcr1.com/5010web to find if there are any airfields within 5 miles, and if so try to contact the owner before flying their gift?
“I believe this needs further clarification,” said Tricia Lambert, administrator of the New Hampshire Bureau of Aeronautics. “It’s very early on in the process.”
On Monday, the FAA began requiring privately-owned drones weighing between half a pound and 55 pounds be registered on a federal database. Those more than 55 pounds are covered under other laws, while those operated for business purposes are registered elsewhere.
The new rule includes all the drones that will be unwrapped for Christmas, as well as existing drones.
The idea behind the registry is that if a drone does something illegal or causes damage, the operator can be found.
Regardless of registration, Lambert said, the key point is that drone operators need to be aware before they fly because the result of an accident in the air, if a small propeller-driven airplane collided with a drone, could be fatal.
“The operator has responsibility for safety,” she said. “People need to be aware.”
At the same time, said Rolla of Concord Municipal Airport, pilots also need to be extra aware of this new aerial presence.
“It’s the responsibility of every pilot to see and avoid people in the air as well as people on the ground,” he said.
There have been no reports of aviation accidents caused by drones in the U.S., but the number of reported near misses across the country has increased, according to news reports. In some cases, the airspace conflict has produced a major problem: Several times last summer, California had to suspend flights of water-dropping planes or helicopters at wildfires because nearby drones were taking pictures.
Industry observers expect the number of drones in private hands to increase greatly after Christmas, when as many as 400,000 of the unmanned vehicles will be given as presents, raising concern about potential conflicts. That’s why the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation’s airspace, scrambled to gets its UAS registry up and running before the holiday. It went live Monday at faa.gov/uas/registration.
Drones must be registered by Feb. 19, 2016; after that, any drone must be registered before it can be operated. Registration is free through Jan. 21, and it costs $5 thereafter. Failing to register can lead to civil fines of as much as $27,500 and, in criminal cases, imprisonment for up to three years.
The registry is controversial in some quarters. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, an industry group for model airplanes and, more recently, drones, said on Sunday that it is trying to stop the registry and asked its members not to register.
Part of the concern is the possibility that the database will be made publicly available.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, email@example.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)