On May 19th, the United States Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, nullified a 2015 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule that required owners of small unmanned aircraft (drones) being operated for recreational purposes to register those aircraft with the FAA. Such drones are referred to as “model aircraft” under federal aviation law.
A Washington, D.C.-area drone hobbyist John Taylor challenged the Registration Rule, arguing that the rule violated the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act (the “Act”), which had a specific prohibition against such regulatory action impacting model aircraft. In contrast, the FAA argued that prior Registration Rue was authorized under pre-existing statutory provisions, unaffected by the Act, which require registration of aircraft before operation. The Court of Appeals agreed with Taylor, saying that the Registration Rule was a new regulatory regime for model aircraft and, therefore, in violation of the Act.
Although the FAA also argued that the Registration Rule is consistent with the Act’s general directive to improve aviation safety, the Court ruled that policy concerns did not override the language of the law. In the Court’s opinion, written by Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, although “safety is obviously important” and the rule may promote safety, the FAA’s action is still barred by Section 336 of the Act, which explicitly prevents the FAA from promulgating “any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.” The court determined that in order for the FAA to require model aircraft registration, Congress would have to modify or repeal the 2012 Act.
Although the federal court ruling was welcomed by drone hobbyists, the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry’s response has been mixed. Brendan Schulman, the Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs at DJI, a major drone manufacturer, noted that "drone registration is a good policy because it promotes accountability and provides an opportunity for the FAA to educate pilots on the guidelines for safe operation.” Brian Wynne, President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a robotics organization that represents a number of commercial interests, expressed support for a UAS registration system. He also said that AUVSI plans to work with Congress to “create a culture of safety.”
The ruling does not affect FAA oversight of commercial UAS operations. Drone operations for commercial purposes must comply with requirements under the Small UAS rule (14 C.F.R. Part 107) or pursuant to an FAA exemption, waiver, or authorization.
TWG regularly assists private and public UAS operators with complying with federal law and regulations, including obtaining any necessary exemptions, waivers or authorizations from the FAA. For more information about TWG’s work related to drones, please contact Roncevert Almond (firstname.lastname@example.org).