For drone hobbyists and all of the soon-to-be owners of the estimated 400,000 small unmanned aircraft that will be unwrapped this holiday season, the clock is ticking. The Federal Aviation Administration announced on Monday a new drone registration process requiring owners of remotely piloted aircraft to register online with the government by early next year.
The new rules require existing drone users to register their aircraft no later than Feb. 19. New drones bought after the registration process goes live on Dec. 21 will have to register before the first flight. The penalties for failing to do so—at least on paper—are severe. According to the FAA rule, civil penalties for flying a drone without registering it first could be as high as $27,500. Criminal penalties could see fines as high as $250,000 and three years in prison.
“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement accompanying the new rules. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”
By requiring users to register their drones the FAA hopes to curb a recent spate of close calls between drones and commercial aircraft as well as incidents like the recent high-profile crash of a photography drone into the stands at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
But not everyone shares Foxx’s enthusiasm. Drones operated recreationally have long been treated by the FAA as model aircraft and therefore exempt from federal oversight. Groups like the Academy of Model Aeronautics that represent the interests of recreational drone operators expressed disappointment at the new regulation Tuesday while suggesting the FAA may have overstepped its authority.
The new regulations pertain to all unmanned aircraft weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds including payloads like cameras. Those registering must be 13 years of age or older and will have to provide the FAA with their name, home address, and email address. The system will then generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership for each user, as well as a unique identification number that must be displayed on all drones. Contrary to previous reports, the FAA will charge a registration fee of $5, though it will waive that fee for the first 30 days after registration opens on Dec. 21.
Registered users can use the same identifying number for multiple aircraft, making this more of an operator registry than a drone registry. Lisa Ellman, a public policy lawyer at the D.C. offices of Hogan Lovells and co-chair of the practice’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Group, says the registry is largely aimed at fostering accountability among and between drone operators.
“The hope is that it will encourage a culture of accountability on both sides,” Ellman says. That is, not only will registered drone operators be better educated drone pilots, but, ideally, they will also become more likely to recognize and report any unsafe or illegal piloting they witness. “I think [the FAA’s] hope is that this will lead to greater enforcement regardless of whether the pilot in question is actually registered.”
FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker echoed those sentiments in a conference call with reporters Monday. “Registration provides us with an opportunity to educate unmanned aircraft users about how to operate safely,” he said. “It will also create accountability, so when a drone is located that has been flying improperly we’ll be able to locate the owner,” he added. “There’s nothing that would require an enforcement action if we just get someone to do what they’re supposed to do.”
The civil and criminal fines reaching into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars are considered a maximum fine in “egregious circumstance,” he said. “The goal is not to be punitive, but to get people into compliance with the operating rules.”
The registry applies to recreational, non-commercial drone use only. Broad regulations governing the commercial use of drones in U.S. airspace are expected sometime in the first half of next year. The FAA expects as many as 11 million commercial drones to join the millions of recreational drones already taking flight by 2020.
For more on drone policy, watch this Fortune video.