Small, unmanned, amazing quadcopters—often referred to as drones, for reasons that mystify us—captured the attention of children, adults, retailers and yes, the Federal Aviation Administration, as they soared in popularity over the past several years. Concerns over aviation safety prompted the FAA to pass a rule (right before Christmas 2015) requiring federal registration of these remote-controlled aerial devices.
Motivated by Congress’ direction to “promote the safe flight of civil aircraft” the FAA decided a layer of bureaucracy was in order, including a requirement that these devices display a registration number issued by the feds. Thus, it issued its ”Registration Rule.”
More than a half million “drones” were registered under the rule. But one Maryland hobbyist affected by this rule happened to be a lawyer who loves not only flying, but also clear statutory text.
On December 24, 2015, he sued the FAA, claiming Congress had forbidden what the FAA was attempting. After all, in 2012 Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. No. 112-95, 126 Stat. 11, which included a section specifically prohibiting the FAA from adopting rules or regulations regarding “model aircraft” flown for hobby or recreational use. A model aircraft is defined as an “unmanned aircraft” flown within the operator’s sight for recreation.
After reviewing the Act, plaintiff John A. Taylor put down his radio controller and wrote a 71-page brief explaining that if the law as written allows the FAA to require him to register his toy it must also make Frisbees, paper airplanes and other small flying toys ”subject to the myriad statutes and regulations applicable to ‘aircraft.'”
On May 19, a federal appeals court agreed with Mr. Taylor and shot down the rule. The Court said: “statutory construction does not get much simpler. The Registration Rule is unlawful as applied to model aircraft.”
While the Court agreed the Registration Rule is consistent with a general directive of the federal aviation statutes to “improve aviation safety” and might further that goal to some degree, ”policy considerations cannot override our interpretation of the text and structure of the Act….”
Taylor had also challenged an FAA order prohibiting model aircraft in certain zones, including around Washington. The Court did not consider that separate claim because it was untimely filed.
Finally, the Court did remind all flyers that the section of the Act that precludes the “Registration Rule” expressly preserves the FAA’s authority to ”pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.”
So if you have an unregistered drone, tip a rotor to Mr. Taylor and fly with care.