Got a drone for Christmas? Here's what you need to know

While small, unmanned aircrafts made for popular Christmas gifts this year, the Federal Aviation Administration is implementing strict rules to help make American airspace safe.

This month, the FAA announced it is requiring owners who use their drones for personal use to register their aircraft through an online database. The requirement is applicable for all unmanned aircrafts that weight between 8 ounces and 55 pounds. The database, said FAA spokesperson Elizabeth Cory, will help make owners more accountable.

“Our concern is the safety of the nation’s airspace,” Cory said. “People want to enjoy these drones, these are fun toys, but there has to be a responsibility.”

The penalty for not registering a drone is rather steep. It could include a $27,500 fine levied by the FAA, as criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to three years.

The registration for hobbyists will be implemented in the coming weeks, and owners will have until February 19, 2016 to complete the online registration. Those who complete the registration Jan. 20, 2016 will have their $5 registration fee waived.

The concern for officials is that drones could interfere with planes landing and taking off. That is why all drone flights within five miles of an airport has to be approved by local air traffic controllers. 

Kansas State University Assistant Professor of Aviation Michael Most stressed that drone pilots should exercise common sense when flying unmanned aircrafts. Most said that unmanned aircrafts could pose a potential danger not only to aircrafts, but also to people on the ground.

“We took a pretty healthy chunk out of a picnic table the other day with a fixed-wing aircraft,” Most said. “You can only imagine what that would do to your fingers. People need to be made aware that it is like a spinning knife out there.”

Most said Kansas State is offering brief, beginner-level courses to people who are looking how to learn a drone.

While it might be easy to think that reporting flying a small drone several miles from an airport is merely a formality, Cory said the priority is to maintain clear airspace for flights taking off and landing.

While there have not been any recent cases of drones striking aircrafts, there have been a number of close calls.

“There have been cases where they have been closer than we would like for them to be,” Cory said. “They need to stay below 400 feet, as they start interfering with aircrafts.”

One recommendation Most gave for amateur drone pilots is to watch online videos made by experienced drone pilots on sites like YouTube.

“As someone who just took one out of a box, even though I had a pretty good idea of aerodynamics and how it works, I just took a quadcopter out and watched the YouTube videos, and it wasn’t that hard for me,” Most said.

With more young people taking to flying unmanned aircrafts, Most is hoping that might translate into excitement for aviation.

“I was surprised last summer when I saw in Boise, Idaho a kiosk selling multi-rotors, that was kind of an eye-opener of how popular these have become,” Most said. “I think this is kind of a hook to get people interested in it.

“My big fear is that, and the FAA ruling involving regulation of all the Christmas drones is kind of a manifestation of this — when the Wright Brothers first flew, there was not any regulation. But as more things happened, more regulations we got.”

Other tips from the FAA:

- Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
- Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
- Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
- Don't fly near people or stadiums
- Don't fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds
- Don't be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft — you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft

Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs.

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