A D.C.-based appeals court struck down a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule on Friday requiring recreational drone users to register their model aircraft with the federal government, in a major win for drone hobbyists.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with plaintiff John A. Taylor, a recreational drone pilot, who argued that the FAA doesn’t have the power to make him register his toy drones because Congress already said the FAA can’t regulate model aircraft.
“The FAA’s 2015 registration rule, which applies to model aircraft, directly violates that clear statutory prohibition,” the opinion said. “We therefore grant Taylor’s petition and vacate the registration rule to the extent it applies to model aircraft.”
As drones have exploded in popularity and as the technology has become increasingly affordable, both lawmakers and the FAA have worked to safely incorporate drones into the national airspace.
In December 2015, the FAA issued an interim rule requiring drone hobbyists to register their recreational aircraft with the agency.
The court called the registration process “quite extensive, as one would imagine for airplanes.”
The rule — which had not been formally finalized — requires model aircraft owners to provide their name, email address and physical address; pay a $5 registration fee; and display a unique drone ID number at all times. Those who fail to comply could face civil and criminal penalties.
While Congress directed the FAA to safely integrate drones into the national airspace in a 2012 aviation law, they also included a special exemption for model aircraft.
The appeals court cited the 2012 law in its ruling, saying that recreational drones count as model aircraft and arguing that that the FAA registration requirement constitutes a rule or regulation.
“Congress passed and President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012,” the ruling said. “Specifically, the ‘Special Rule for Model Aircraft’ [section] provides that the FAA ‘may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.’”
Lawyers for the FAA argued that the registration rule is not a new requirement, but merely a “decision to cease its exercise of enforcement discretion,” which falls within its mission to improve aviation safety.
They also said that exempting some drones from the registration log would “create a gaping hole in FAA’s enforcement authority and threaten the safety of the national airspace system.”
But the appeals called those arguments “unpersuasive.”