The popular DJI Phantom series of drones are heavy enough to require registration. Photo by Don McCullough via Wikimedia Commons

If you get a new hobby drone for Christmas, chances are your first step won’t be to fly it, but to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Overwhelmed by a surge in close encounters between small drones and manned aircraft, the FAA announced Monday that registration will be required beginning Dec. 21.

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely.”

The rules apply to any drone weighing 250 grams or more — about half a pound. That covers most camera-carrying models. Only palm-sized drones will be light enough to be exempt.

Owners will have to pay a $5 registration fee and attach a unique identification number to each qualifying drone they own. Registration will be free for the first 30 days of the new program to encourage compliance.

Drones purchased before Dec. 21 must be registered by Feb. 21.

Owners may register through a web-based system at www.faa.gov/uas/registration. The same registration number can be used on all of an individual owner’s aircraft.

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”

The registration rule also applies to radio-controlled model airplanes, and the Academy of Model Aeronautics said the FAA had overstepped its authority.

“The rule is counter to Congress’s intent in the Special Rule for Model Aircraft and makes the registration process an unnecessary burden for all of our members who have been operating safely for decades,” the 79-year-old organization said in email to its members.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.