WASHINGTON — Debris from a drone spilled from the September sky, injuring an 11-month-old girl in a stroller on a Pasadena street. A drone buzzing above a wildfire near Big Bear Lake this summer forced an air tanker to ditch plans to dump a load of fire retardant on the flames.
And more than 40 times since April 2014, pilots approaching Los Angeles International Airport have reported dangerous encounters with the small, remote-controlled aircraft that have become increasingly popular — and dangerous.
Concerned about the growing number of incidents in Southern California and across the country, federal regulators said Monday that they planned to require most recreational drones to be registered.
The goal is to rush the rules into place before a Christmas season in which drones are expected to fly off store shelves.
"The signal we're sending today is that when you enter the national airspace, it's a very serious matter," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The requirement would apply to new drone buyers, he said. Existing owners would have to register after a yet-to-be-determined grace period.
Foxx said the goal of registration is to help educate consumers about how to fly their aircraft safely and to aid authorities in tracing trouble-making drones back to their owners to face penalties.
The move is the latest attempt by government officials to wrestle with potentially deadly problems caused by the popularity of remote-controlled drones.
The Consumer Electronics Assn. expects 2015 to be "a defining year for drones," with sales approaching 700,000, a 63% increase from the previous year. Revenue will top $100 million this year, the trade group said.
Consumers are flying drones for fun, movie directors are angling for aerial shots, and companies are considering a variety of uses, such as monitoring pipelines in remote areas and delivering medicine to far-flung communities.
The Federal Aviation Administration already is working on rules governing commercial drones.
But with recreational drones straying more frequently near airplanes and drone malfunctions risking injuries, the agency joined state and local governments in trying to rein them in. The FAA has more limited authority over recreational use of drones.
"There's no doubt there's all kind of havoc being wrought in the sky at the moment with all these drones flying around," said Scott Vernick, who has studied the legal issues surrounding drones as a lawyer at the law firm Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia.
He's not sure that registering drones alone would be enough to deter dangerous operations.
The Los Angeles City Council last week approved new regulations that could result in a six-month prison term or $1,000 fine for people flying drones too close to airports or people. The ordinance is similar to existing federal rules that prohibit recreational drones from flying above 400 feet, within five miles of airports without permission, or out of the sight of the operator.
This fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill designed to prevent paparazzi from flying drones over private property.
In 2012, Congress prohibited the FAA from enacting new regulations on small model aircraft flown for recreational or hobby purposes. But Foxx said a registration requirement would be allowed under the FAA's power to assure safety of the skies.
Foxx said he wanted to create a user-friendly registration procedure. A task force of regulators and industry and recreational groups would turn in recommendations for rules by Nov. 20, and the FAA would have the final rules in place by mid-December. Failure to register would lead to penalties, he said.
A major issue will be deciding which types of drones, such as model aircraft used by hobbyists, are such a low safety risk that they would be exempt from registration.
Rich Hanson, director of government affairs for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, noted that "hundreds of thousands of model aircraft have operated harmoniously within our communities for decades."
"These devices are virtually toys that pose little to no risk, have minimal capabilities [and] have extremely short life spans," he said during the Monday news conference at the Department of Transportation. "The challenge therefore will be striking the right balance in setting the criteria and threshold for registration at an appropriate and effective level."
The FAA said that it receives reports every day of potentially unsafe drone operations and that sightings by pilots of drones doubled this year compared with last year.
Last month, the FAA said it would investigate an incident in which pieces from a small privately owned drone fell and injured the 11-month-old girl in Pasadena. The girl was treated at a hospital for a large bruise on her forehead and a small cut to the side of her head and released, police said. Debris also struck her mother, but she wasn't injured.
Police found the owner of the drone at the accident site, and he told police that he lost control of the aircraft.
But often it's difficult to identify the owner of a drone, Foxx said.
"Finding the drone has not been as much of a problem as finding the person who was using the drone. The registration is designed to close that loophole," he said.
Vernick said he believed the FAA had the authority to require registration, but he didn't think that measure was enough to ensure the safety in the skies the agency is seeking.
He wondered wheter sales of drones between two individuals would require registration and questioned whether enough of a crashed drone would be left to determine its registration number.
"It's a good first step, but as a practical matter, I think there are questions about what it actually accomplishes," he said.
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