The government’s authority to oversee burgeoning recreational drone use was dealt a setback when a federal appeals court barred the Federal Aviation Administration from forcing hobbyists to register the millions of unmanned aircraft taking flight.
While Friday’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington left intact FAA guidance on where recreational drones may fly, the ruling undercuts one of the agency’s primary means of ensuring that unmanned aircraft are operated safely. Some 759,000 hobbyists have signed up since the FAA regulation was enacted in 2015. The agency estimates that 2.3 million drones will be sold this year for recreational use, plus 2.5 million for commercial operations.
Acting as his own lawyer, drone hobbyist John Taylor sued, contending the FAA didn’t have the power to force hobbyists to register.
“Taylor does not think that the FAA had the statutory authority to issue the registration rule and require him to register,” U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “Taylor is right.”
Drone registration was prompted by reports of the unmanned craft flying near traditional aircraft, including airliners at some of the largest U.S. airports. The FAA uses its regulation system, which went into effect in late 2015, to give users safety information. The agency requires drones to have identifying markings to help it find users who have posed a hazard.
Contrary to the mandate, though, was the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, passed by Congress in 2012 and signed by former President Barack Obama. The measure expressly barred the FAA from issuing rules governing model aircraft use, according to the court ruling.
‘Considering Our Options’
The FAA is reviewing the ruling, it said in an emailed statement. “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,” the agency said. “We are in the process of considering our options and response to the decision.”
The ruling doesn’t apply to the growing number of commercial drone operators, such as real estate photographers and cell-tower inspectors. It also won’t effect the plans of companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. to create fleets of delivery drones.
A leading drone manufacturer and an industry trade group issued statements backing the registration system and saying they hope it will be reinstated.
The world’s largest civilian drone builder, China-based SZ DJI Technology Co., said that the FAA’s registration system had made sense.
“The FAA’s innovative approach to drone registration was very reasonable, and registration provides for accountability and education to drone pilots,” Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs, said in an email. “I expect the legal issue that impedes this program will be addressed by cooperative work between the industry and policy makers.”
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is “disappointed” in the ruling, said the trade group’s president, Brian Wynne. The FAA registry, which was developed with industry input, promotes accountability and responsible use of unmanned devices, Wynne said in the emailed statement.
“We plan to work with Congress on a legislative solution that will ensure continued accountability across the entire aviation community, both manned and unmanned,” he said.
Taylor, a lawyer from Silver Spring, Maryland, filed the case within days of the formation of the registration system.
“The registration regulation was so blatantly unlawful,” Taylor said in a phone interview. “I was in disbelief that the FAA would attempt it. So I was pleased to see the court see it that way.”
While he filed the case himself, Taylor said he had the assistance of several attorneys who specialize in aviation law. When asked how many unmanned aircraft he owns, he replied “a bunch,” saying it was difficult to count them all. He has some commonly available off-the-shelf models as well as ones he’s built himself, he said.
In its legal arguments, the FAA said that the same statute that exempted model aircraft from FAA oversight also granted the agency authority to regulate drones. The 2012 legislation, which was the first attempt at setting policy for the unmanned vehicles, said the devices were “aircraft.” The agency interpreted that as allowing it to set legally binding standards for drones.
“The number of unmanned aircraft has increased rapidly, creating significant concerns about the safety of the national airspace system, as well as the safety of persons and property on the ground,” the FAA argued in a 2016 brief in the case. “This is especially true given that many, if not most, owners of unmanned aircraft have no prior aviation experience and lack an understanding of the requirements for safe operation of their unmanned aircraft.”
The case is Taylor v. Huerta, 15-1495, U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia (Washington).
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