FAA Overstepped Authority When Requiring Hobby Operators to Register UAVs, But What About Commercial?

 

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Image by Maurico Lima via flickr.com

 

This post is not legal advice.

I often 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 had previously exempted hobby aircraft from any regulations that FAA might develop in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. This recent ruling demonstrates the bounds of the FAA’s authority to regulate hobby drones/UAVs, but at the same time leave some unanswered questions.

Background

Congress has charged the FAA with requiring registration of aircraft before operated. But the FAA has traditionally interpreted this provision not to require model aircraft. With the rise of UAVs, the FAA began to contemplate the regulatory approach for these aircraft. The initial view was only to require commercial UAVs to be registered and complete reporting requirements with FAA.

In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (2012 Act) that codified FAA’s longstanding view of exempting model aircraft. In 2015, FAA announced final rules for UAVs that required registration with FAA. The final rules included model aircraft as well as commercial UAVs. To aid in registering, FAA created an online registration process that cost $5 and requires all registered UAVs to include a unique identifier number issued by FAA.

John Taylor challenged the final rule in federal court. Taylor claimed that the 2012 Act barred FAA implementing the registration rule against model aircraft. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Taylor.

Court’s Decision

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.

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Image by  Rob Mattson/The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation via flickr.com

The court disagreed with arguments made by FAA that other statutes gave them the authority to register model aircraft 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 also ran counter to the portion of the 2012 Act that excluded model aircraft from being regulated. The court agreed with Taylor that the final rule was unlawful.

Why Should You Care?

            Many in agriculture are looking at potentially using UAVs in their operations. In these cases, the UAVs will be considered commercial and 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 may view their farms as a hobby, but because it is a business, the FAA will take the view the UAV is commercial. 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? You might still need to register the UAV with FAA since it does have a commercial use and might no longer be a model aircraft. You would want to 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 potentially have limited impact on operators looking to utilize a UAV on the farm. The regulations are still new, and we will see future lawsuits giving us a better picture of FAA’s true authority in requiring UAVs to register.

References

Taylor v. Huerta, No. 15-1495, 2017 WL 2192935 (D.C. Cir. May 19, 2017).

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