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Why the federal government wants hobbyists to register their drones

Federal regulators on Monday announced a plan to require drone hobbyists to register their devices.

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx speaks at a news conference at the Department of Transportation in Washington, Monday, where he announced the creation of a task force to develop recommendations for a registration process for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).

Andrew Harnik/AP

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Federal regulators on Monday said they will require recreational drone owners in the United States to register their devices with the government.

The new requirement – which includes the creation of a task force formed by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation to handle registrations – is a response to the growing number of reports of safety incidents and close calls involving unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Officials said they needed to act “to cope with a surge in sales of inexpensive, simple-to-fly drones that are increasingly interfering with regular air traffic,” The Washington Post reported.

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“The signal we’re sending today is that when you’re in the national airspace, it’s a very serious matter,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

Current FAA guidelines prohibit drone owners from flying UAVs above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport without permission. Yet reports of drone sightings or close calls at more than 10,000 feet soared to more than 100 a month this summer, compared to less than 40 during the same period last year, the FAA reports.

The figure is only expected to increase this holiday season, when drone sales are forecast to hit 700,000 – an increase of more than two-thirds since 2014, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Regulators hope that requiring drones to be registered will force owners to be more responsible, especially after reports of UAVs flying near manned aircraft and over major sporting events, as well as interfering with firefighting operations.

“These reports signal a troubling trend,” FAA chief Michael Huerta said at a news conference to announce the new effort. Registration will help ensure that “when [operators] don't fly safely, they'll know there will be consequences,” he added.

Hobbyists in particular have been problematic for the FAA, as the agency is banned from imposing new restrictions on recreational drone owners under a law passed by Congress in 2012 designed to protect model aircraft owners. The task force, which will have to grapple with the issue of size limits and the type of drones that need to be registered, would get regulation rolling for recreational drones.

The group will have until Nov. 20 to finalize the guidelines for the registry, Secretary Foxx said. The new rules will apply to both new drone owners and those who bought UAVs before the requirement was put in place.

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Some warn that the registration process needs to be monitored closely. Registering drones that could pose safety risks “makes sense, but it should not become a prohibitive burden for recreational users who fly for fun and educational purposes and who have operated harmoniously within our communities for decades,” said Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy for Model Aeronautics, in a statement.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.