When the FAA announced the new drone registration process last month, many experts in the commercial UAV community saw this as a limited preview around the sort of system and setup that will eventually be rolled out for commercial UAV registration. While this new process is aimed squarely at recreational drone users, there will undoubtedly be important similarities between this one and the one that will eventually replace the paper registration process for commercial use.

I took a closer look at exactly what this new registration process looks like, and Jeff Foster lays everything out in step-by-step detail. The FAA has and continues to view recreational and commercial separately, which is underlined by the fact that the bottom of the page specifically calls out what sort of user still needs to use the paper registration process. Nonetheless, this new process offers insight into how the FAA is approaching registration from a macro level.

First and foremost, the simplicity of the new process is striking. Creating and confirming an online account/profile with the FAA is as simple as it is on other sites that force you to create profiles in order to do everything from apply for a job to sign up for a newsletter. Once you’ve confirmed your account and filled in your profile, the four-step drone registration confirmation process itself looks and feels like you’re making a purchase off of Amazon, which highlights how simple and familiar the process should be for the vast majority of users.

It’s clear that the agency wanted to create a process that anyone could utilize and wouldn’t be intimated by, and they’ve certainly accomplished that goal. The FAA used the #flysafe hashtag to encourage feedback, and in the age of such moves blowing up in the wrong way, the fact that angry or sarcastic comments aren’t flooding their feed is a sign that the majority of recreational users aren’t confused or infuriated by the process. Or at least the ones who use Twitter.

It might sound like I’m criticizing just to criticize, but in some ways this process feels too simple. There are a number of places where seemingly important info is being linked to rather than specifically spelled out. While it’s certainly routine for companies that have users creating an online profile to not specifically highlight how they’re going to handle the info you’re providing them, the fact that the FAA links to a page on the website for the US Department of Transportation rather than the PDF which contains the relevant info seems like it’s being purposefully vague. Especially when said PDF contains info that should probably be more prominent:

All records maintained by the FAA in connection with aircraft registered are included in the Aircraft Registry and made available to the public, except email address and credit card information submitted under part 48.

I happen to think that’s a rather important thing, which shouldn’t be multiple clicks removed from the registration page and buried in a separate download.

Also, the “Acknowledgement of Safety Guidance” section states that users say they are aware of FAA airspace requirements, but then provide a separate link to those requirements, which redirects you to the Temporary Flight Restrictions page. To the uninitiated, it’s not immediately clear how FAA requirements and restrictions are related, and that page also has several separate links which contain important flight information.

Both of these pages look to be set up with the expectation and even the intention that users will click the “Next” button without dwelling too long on the info they contain, much less clicking the appropriate links which will eventually take them where they need to go to find proper instructions they should know before flying. All of which makes it more likely users will complete the registration process, but is that worth the risk of those users having no more awareness of safety and security requirements than they did when they started?

At this stage, the FAA might very well answer “yes” to that question, because it’s clear their goal here is simply around the creation of a database, even at the expense of everything else. Doing so allows them to assign registration numbers to users, and since recreational users only need to register themselves and not their individual drones, you can see why the ease of the registration process was such a priority.

Users are supposed to display those registration numbers directly on their drone in one way or another, although the manner in which they recommend people mark their drones is almost funny. The only requirement is that the number be visible, which includes using “permanent marker, label or engraving.” I was ready to see the phrase, “by any means necessary”, but I suppose they have most of the essential means already identified.

In some ways it feels as though they want to create a process that’s similar to DMV registration, which seems both ambitious and potentially unsuitable. The differences between the two are sizable, starting with the fact that driver license registration is handled at the state level, while the FAA is obviously a federal agency. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that while Massachusetts was the first state to issue driving licenses and plates in 1903, that process looked considerably different as time and technology progressed.

The simplicity of this new drone registration process inherently highlights the fact that much of the burden around safety when using a drone is something users are supposed to take upon themselves. It’s very possible that anyone registering will click through the sections that contain safety info without even reading them or having too much concern about the details, especially if it’s the first time they’re seeing terms like “visual line of sight”. While it’s nice to see that the FAA has included a link to the B4UFLY Smartphone App at the end of the process, I’d rather see such info incorporated into the process in a much more active manner, rather than a decidedly passive one.

It’s little surprise that the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) Executive Council is recommending their members hold off on registering, as they continue to voice their opinion that this process does little to increase the safety of the skies, which is their ultimate priority. It’s hard to argue that getting people to click “Next” around some safety guidance is all that’s needed to get them to understand how they can and should be using their drones to ensure they aren’t putting themselves or others in danger.

Of course, it’s also likely that these safety shortcomings are something the FAA is acutely aware of, and what’s here is just a first step around a process that will eventually include something much more powerful around safety concerns. I haven’t found any direct reference to that sort of plan, but with the commercial process still being developed, it’s clear the FAA is defining these rules and processes in pieces.

As far as commercial registration learnings go, one can image the look and feel of the online portal they’ve created here will also be used for the commercial process. Of course, the simplicity that’s apparent for recreation users is unlikely to be the same in the commercial process, for several reasons. Already a key difference is around hobbyists registering themselves as individuals as opposed to commercial users who will need to register individual drones. And of course, commercial users will need to establish what they’re going to be using their drones for in one way or another, which could mean anything from filling in a massive questionnaire to writing out a glorified essay. Or both.

It’s also guaranteed the commercial registration process will not be instantaneous like this one is, where the registration number is immediately kicked back after your credit card payment clears. Right now the FAA asks for 8 weeks to process 333 exemptions. How will that window be impacted when it turns into a digital process? Will the FAA be asking the same questions they’re asking currently, or will they want to know more? Will the details of safety and training be as succinct in the commercial process as they are in the recreational one?

We might not have to wait too long to find out, since according to the FAA itself, online sUAS Registration System is scheduled to open by March 31, although June of 2016 is the time period that’s been widely reported elsewhere by the FAA. Regardless of what happens later this year, the new registration process for recreational users is the first step in the government’s attempt to provide some guidance and structure for an area that many have so far deemed the “Wild West.” It’s likely not going to be enough to tame this frontier, but it’s an important development, and one that has implications for users of all types and sizes as well as for the FAA itself.