FAA criticized for oversight as millions of new drones likely unregistered

Drone regulations

WASHINGTON --  Fifteen-year-old Keelan Garde has been practicing with a small drone outside Phoenix, getting prepared for a much bigger one he received this holiday season.

It was one of an estimated 1.2 million drones given as gifts, up 112 percent from 2015.

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Keelan Garde with his new drone CBS News

But before drones weighing just over half a pound or more take flight, the owner needs to register with the FAA or face the potential of huge fines, something drone makers won’t be required to tell purchasers until at least 2018.

So far, more than 615,000 hobbyists have registered, but the FAA expects as many 2.5 million drones to be sold this year alone.

The registry is part of an effort by regulators to get hobbyists to follow the rules, including flying below 400 feet or not close to airports.

So far this year, more than 1,800 drones have been spotted around airports, up about 50 percent from 2015.

Just this month, an inspector general report criticized the FAA’s oversight of drone safety.

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  Michael Droback CBS News

According to Michael Droback, a lawyer who works with the drone industry, many consumers likely do not know they need to register their drones.

“A registration system with enforcement and penalties, it sounds like the federal government is taking care of us and protecting our skies. The reality is, they are not allowing for the kind of commercial operations that we really do want, while at the same time not providing real guidance on how we can be good stewards of this technology,” Droback said.

The FAA has focused on educating drone users rather than seeking fines. The agency was not able to tell CBS News what enforcement action it has taken against users who have not registered.

While the FAA can seek civil fines, the much more substantial criminal penalties can only be handled by law enforcement. 

  • Kris Van Cleave

    Kris Van Cleave is the transportation correspondent for CBS News.