In time for the holidays, when hundreds of thousands of drones will be received as gifts, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday that recreational pilots and hobbyists must register drones almost as small as a half-pound.
By Feb. 19, 2016, drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds, including attached cameras, will have to be registered.
Anyone flying a drone or unmanned aircraft for recreational purposes after that date will face a civil penalty of up to $27,500 and potential criminal charges, including a fine of up to $250,000 and three years in prison, the agency said.
The registration fee is $5, but the FAA will waive the fee for the first 30 days to encourage participation. Registration begins Monday.
"Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. "Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely."
Drone operators will be asked to provide their name, and home and email addresses. The online application will generate a certificate of aircraft registration and proof of ownership, which will include an identification number that must be marked on the drone.
The casual drone fliers can register by mail or at www.faa.gov/uas/registration, and must be at least 13 years old, the FAA said.
Registration covers civilian pilots and hobbyists, but not those who operate drones for commercial purposes.
The FAA said it would begin online registration of drones operated for commercial purposes next spring.
Meanwhile, the Consumer Electronics Association has projected recreational drone sales of nearly $105 million in 2015, up more than 52 percent from 2014, with 700,000 new drones taking to the U.S. skies by the new year.
Nationally, more than one-third of 1,007 Americans surveyed by the St. Leo University Polling Institute in Florida said they would like to have a drone. Most said they thought it would be "a fun hobby."
However, a majority of adults in the survey - 73.1 percent - polled between Nov. 29 and Dec. 3 said they were concerned about drones in U.S. airspace. Their top concerns were personal privacy, potentially dangerous interference with airplanes, and using drones as weapons, or the government spying on citizens.
Companies including Amazon.com, Google, and Wal-Mart want to use drones for delivery of small packages to customers. Currently, commercial drone use is illegal. The FAA is expected to come up with rules for commercial drone use next year.
Hobbyists are now permitted to fly model aircraft no higher than 400 feet, always within sight of the operator, and at least five miles from airports and crowds. As the technology has advanced, unmanned aerial vehicles have been able to fly higher and have become cheaper, available for less than $100 to more than $4,000.
In August, the latest FAA report on drones noted 765 sightings of unmanned small aircraft by pilots, air traffic control, and citizens in the nine months between Nov. 13, 2014 and Aug. 20, 2015. Of the 765 incidents, only four were in airspace around Philadelphia International Airport. None were "near collisions," and all the planes landed safely, the FAA said.
Drone hobbyists with more than one model aircraft will have to register only once, and can use the same identification number for all of their unmanned aircraft. The registration is valid for three years, the FAA said.
"We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
"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."