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Fail to Register Your Drone? You Could Be Hit With $27K Fine

The national drone registry is open for business.
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The national drone registry is open for business. Starting on Monday, the federal government is requiring owners of unmanned aerial vehicles to share their information — and those who refuse or ignore the rules could face stiff penalties.

The maximum civil penalty is a fine of up to $27,500. Criminal penalties can reach $250,000 or three years in prison.

"Whether the FAA will be able to enforce this rule is a genuinely open question," Eli Dourado, director of the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told NBC News.

"Thousands of children may be getting drones this holiday season without being aware of the new rules," Dourado said. "The FAA doesn’t have the manpower to investigate and punish every instance of flying an unregistered drone, nor, I suspect, would it have the political will to. It is not going to send little kids to jail for this."

How to register a drone

The new requirement only applies to people with drones weighing 0.55 pounds (including extra equipment such as cameras) to 50 pounds.

People with drones in that range can register online for $5, although it's free before Jan. 20. The FAA is asking for names, home addresses and email addresses; once someone registers, they will get an identification number to write on all of their drones.

The drone registry comes ahead of more comprehensive regulations the FAA is planning to put in place in spring 2016.

The hope is that law enforcement will be able to use the identification numbers to find the owners of rogue UAVs. Over the last year, errant drones made headlines by causing firefighters to ground planes in California, crashing onto the White House grounds, and nearly hitting a medivac helicopter.

People who already own drones have until Feb. 19 to register, and new drones must be registered before their first flight.

What happens if you don't register?

It's not really clear. It certainly seems doubtful that the FAA would slap every offender with a $27,500 fine. But the FAA did not give specific answers as to what smaller penalties might be.

"Our focus is on educating owners who have not yet registered and to maximize compliance," an FAA spokesperson told NBC News. "For egregious violations of the registration rule, we also have several enforcement tools available, including civil penalties."

The $27,500 figure comes from existing FAA regulations for failing to register manned aircraft. Obviously, a 0.55-pound drone is different than a Cessna that weighs more than 2,000 pounds. The vast majority of drone owners won't get fined thousands of dollars for flying around their Christmas toys, said Michael Freudenberg, a partner at law firm Harrington, Ocko & Monk.

"Maybe it's a $100 fine or $500 fine," Freudenberg told NBC News. "They haven't set a minimum, they only set a maximum.

"It's likely if it's a first-time offender, who is using it for recreational use and hasn't caused any harm, that they will get hit with a minimal fine."

But that doesn't mean someone couldn't be slammed with maximum civil penalty. Careless drone operators could really hurt someone, especially if flying over a crowd or near an emergency area.

Around 700,000 drones are expected to be sold by the end of 2015, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. There is a good chance some of those drone owners will make bad decisions.

"You can bet that someone is going to get caught with an unlicensed drone carrying a firearm, laser beam, wandering into restricted airspace, crashing into public arenas, or engaging in some other irresponsible behavior that will lead to a high fine," said Robert Grover, who leads the drone safety advisory board at education tech company PCS Edventures.

"Examples will need to be made and as this issue evolves, it will become more clear as to what violations equate to what level of penalty."

Of course, those who use drones to carry out criminal activities — like smuggling items into prisons —are going to face much stiffer fines and possibly jail time.

To catch a drone

The FAA sets the fines, but it will rely on law enforcement to actually catch people who are flying unregistered drones.

How will the agency do that? That is also not clear, with the FAA spokesperson only telling NBC News that it would be "working closely with our law enforcement partners" to make sure they know the new registration rules. The agency did not give any specifics on how drones would be stopped and their owners identified.

Most likely, you won't see police officers chasing around UAVs at random.

"When someone complains about a drone flying over their property, or there is an injury, that's when they're going to enforce the rules and impose fines," Freudenberg said.

That will probably lead drone manufacturers and retailers who sell drones to include reminders to register, predicted Freudenberg, seeing as a rash of customer fines wouldn't be good for business.

As for when police can stop a drone and how they might do that, those questions are still up in the air — although operators might make it easier for law enforcement if they by post footage on the Internet.

"The bottom line is that there are going to be a lot of mistakes made in the early days of enforcement," Grover said. "Expect a lot of entertaining YouTube videos and let’s hope that nobody gets hurt."