US Drone Registration and High Altitude Balloons


Update (4/16/17): On June 21, 2016, the FAA released Part 107 regarding Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Under 101.7(b)2, the FAA has clarified that weather balloons under Part 101 do not fall under the new UAS/drone laws. The content in the blog post below has been left in its original format. The key takeaway: you do not need to register your High Altitude Balloon with the FAA to obtain a drone registration number, as long as you meet the criteria as outlined in FAA Regulation Part 101.1.

For the latest laws and regulations, visit our latest blog post here


Original blog post:

As of December 21st, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has enacted new regulations and guidance regarding the operation of unmanned aircraft: 14 CFR-Part 48.  Contrary to what we initially thought, this does appear to apply to high altitude balloon (HAB) systems and must now be complied with in addition to the other laws noted in the legal section of our Free User Guide.  Under this new law, the FAA imposes a requirement to register unmanned aircraft that weigh more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds.  The FAA has three important definitions:

  • Aircraft means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.

  • Balloon means a lighter-than-air aircraft that is not engine driven, and that sustains flight through the use of either gas buoyancy or an airborne heater.

  • Unmanned aircraft means an aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.

High Altitude Balloon spacecraft meet all three of those requirements, which in our literal interpretation implies that all HAB spacecraft operators must be properly registered, and each spacecraft must have proper identification markings.

Here are instructions on how to register, video made by Parrot Drones:

It appears that there are two major reasons for these new guidelines.  Firstly, they provide a mechanism for identifying the owner of a UAS in the event of some emergency, or simply just because somebody found a long lost balloon.  Secondly, a need to federally register psychologically encourages safer operation of the balloon, since each operator is individually responsible for the safe conduct of their flight.  There are stiff fines and possible jail time for operating an unregistered aircraft. Given the press that some of these launches can get, it is prudent that all HAB launches are done by the book!

These new laws do not supercede previous ones; they are in addition to the same rules that we have always had to comply with.  There is mention of 400 foot altitude restrictions - these appear to be directly aimed at quadcopter and model airplane pilots and do not appear to be relevant regulations for HAB launches.  For HAB launches, always follow all pertinent FAA regulations, all pertinent FCC regulations, and always file your notices to airmen (NOTAM) with your local FAA facility.  Always remember - safe operation will preserve this hobby for a long time to come.

There are still questions about whether these registration laws, aimed at drone pilots, apply to HAB launches.  This document indicates that balloons are not considered UAS, but is not a legal document.  What it does show is that some clarifications are in order.  We believe that safe and legal HAB launches are key to keeping this hobby flying and therefore, until we get specific official guidance, we recommend that you register your HAB spacecraft before launch.  We are taking it upon ourselves to try to get that clarification from the FAA and will keep you posted as we learn more.And finally the mandatory legal disclaimer: this blog post should not be considered legal advice nor legally binding recommendations.