Court of Appeals Rules That FAA Overstepped Authority When Requiring Hobby Operators to Register UAV
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
This post is not legal advice. See here for the site’s reposting policy.
I like to talk, talk, and write about drones/UAVs and today is no exception. Recently, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) registration requirements for all unmanned aircraft including hobby aircraft violated federal law. Congress previously exempted hobby aircraft from any regulations that FAA might develop in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. This most recent ruling demonstrates the limits of FAA’s authority to regulate hobby drones/UAVs, but at the same time leaves some unanswered questions.
Congress has charged the FAA to require that aircraft are registered before being operated. But the FAA has traditionally interpreted this provision as not including model aircraft. With the rise of UAVs, the FAA began to contemplate the regulatory approach for these aircraft. The initial view was to only require commercial that UAVs be registered and to complete FAA reporting requirements.
In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (2012 Act), codifying FAA’s longstanding view of exempting model aircraft. In 2015, FAA announced final rules requiring UAV registration with FAA, including model aircraft as well as commercial UAVs. FAA created an online registration process to aid in registering which cost $5 and requires all registered UAVs to include a unique identifier number issued by FAA.
John Taylor challenged this final rule in federal court. Taylor claimed that the 2012 Act barred FAA implementing the registration rule for model aircraft. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Taylor.
The court looked at the language in the 2012 Act and found that the language specifically excluded FAA from regulating model aircraft. The final regulations specifically included model aircraft which ran counter to this exclusion.
The court disagreed with FAA arguments that other statutes gave them the authority to require model aircraft registration because FAA had never required model aircraft to be registered before. The FAA also argued that the registration portion was consistent with other portions of the 2012 Act. This argument ran counter to the portion of the 2012 Act excluding model aircraft from being regulated. The court agreed with Taylor that the final rule was unlawful.
Why Should You Care?
Many people in agriculture are looking at using UAVs in their operations. In these cases, the UAVs will be considered commercial and will need to be registered with the FAA. The 2012 Act specifically excludes model aircraft or those unmanned aircraft flown for hobby or recreational purposes. I realize many farmers view their farms as a hobby, but because it is a business, the FAA will take the view the UAV is used for a commercial purpose. In those cases, it is still worth registering the UAV with FAA.
I know what many of you are thinking: Paul, what if I get a UAV to use for fun and then sometimes use it on the farm? This might still require you to register the UAV with FAA, since it does have a commercial use and might no longer be considered a model aircraft. This would be one case where you should consider registering to be safe and not face penalties from FAA for failure to register.
Although this ruling will greatly impact recreational and hobby users, it will probably have limited impact on operators looking to use a UAV on the farm. The regulations are still new. Future lawsuits will give us a better picture of FAA’s true authority in requiring UAVs to register.
Taylor v. Huerta, No. 15-1495, 2017 WL 2192935 (D.C. Cir. May 19, 2017).