Court Strikes Down FAA Requirement For Recreational Drone Registration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirement for hobbyist drone operators to register their aircraft last week, citing previous legislation that forbids the agency from creating regulations for model aircraft.

The ruling, handed down May 19 by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, has caused a stir among drone users and advocates as well as other organizations with interests in aviation or technology.

The lawsuit against the FAA was filed by John Taylor, a model aircraft hobbyist living in Washington D.C., who challenged whether the agency had the authority to make the registration rule for recreational drones.

“To begin, Taylor does not think that the FAA had the statutory authority to issue the Registration Rule and require him to register,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the court opinion. “Taylor is right.”

The legislation at the center of the ruling is the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which — among hundreds of other items — mandated the FAA create a plan for integrating unmanned aircraft safely into the national airspace and included a section limiting its governance of model aircraft.

“In short, the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act provides that the FAA ‘may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,’ yet the FAA’s 2015 Registration Rule is a ‘rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,’” Kavanaugh wrote. “Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler. The Registration Rule is unlawful as applied to model aircraft.”

The FAA is weighing its options following the ruling, according to a statement put out by the agency last week.

“The FAA put registration and operational regulations in place to ensure that drones are operated in a way that is safe and does not pose security and privacy threats,” it said in the statement.

The registration program launched in December 2015 in anticipation of millions of drones being given as gifts during the holiday season. Since going live, more than 820,000 commercial and recreational drone owners have registered their aircraft. The commercial registration process is unaffected by the court ruling.

A screenshot of the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone registration page.

Some organizations promoting drone safety applauded the registration’s creation, which they saw as a means of tracking aircraft operating illegally or unsafely back to their operators and discouraging reckless flying.

Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, expressed disappointment with the court’s decision and promised to help find a path forward.

“We plan to work with Congress on a legislative solution that will ensure continued accountability across the entire aviation community, both manned and unmanned,” Wynne said in a statement.

Other aviation groups also are encouraging Congress to sort out the matter in hopes of mitigating what they see as safety risks to their operations. Among them are the Helicopter Association International, an industry advocacy group for helicopter operators. HAI said in a statement that helicopters routinely fly at low altitude also occupied by drones, and its members have concerns about flying safely in that airspace.  

“We believe that the FAA’s drone registration program serves to protect everyone in the air and on land,” the group said. “HAI strongly urges Congress to allow the FAA to do what the FAA does best: to provide safe and efficient use of our national airspace. We request that the FAA be given the governance and oversight over all forms of aircraft in order to ensure the safety of the National Airspace System.”

Regardless of its intentions to make airspaces with drones safer, opponents of the registration have said the FAA does not have the authority to make such requirements..

Known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft or Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the language states the FAA administrator cannot make rules regarding model aircraft if they are flown for recreation, operated under a community-based set of safety guidelines and meet other criteria.  

The Academy for Model Aeronautics, which has partnered with the FAA on safety and education campaigns regarding drones, said the registration process has its place in governing commercial aircraft but creates burdens for hobbyists such as its members.

“For decades, AMA members have registered their aircraft with AMA and have followed our community-based safety programming,” AMA President Rich Hanson said in a statement. “It is our belief that a community-based program works better than a federally mandated program to manage the recreational community.”