A little over a year ago, we told you about the pending lawsuit over the FAA’s Registration Rule for drones. During that time, all users of drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds have had to comply with FAA regulations requiring registration or face civil and criminal penalties. Over 1.5 million drones have been registered with the FAA since then, and the FAA estimates that there will be 13 million drones in the sky by 2020. The regulations included both commercial and noncommercial uses. Specifically, they included the use of drones by hobbyists for recreational purposes.
John Taylor, a lawyer, D.C. resident, and model aircraft hobbyist, challenged the law. Taylor argued that the FAA did not have the statutory authority to issue the rule, and the D.C. Circuit agreed. Taylor v. Huerta, ___ F.3d ___ (D.C.Cir.2017) (No. 15-1495; 5-19-17).
In 2012, Congress addressed the growing issue of drone safety in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The Act specifically carved out an exception for model aircraft flown for recreational purposes—Section 336(a) states that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”
The FAA argued that the Registration Rule was authorized under legislation passed before the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. That legislation required the registration of all aircraft before operation. The court disagreed, stating that the Registration Rule was not covered under the pre-existing legislation but instead was a new rule regarding model aircraft.
The FAA also argued that the new rule was consistent with one of the general directives of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act to “improve aviation safety.” The court conceded that may be the case but said that policy considerations of the Act cannot override the text of the Act.
Taylor argued simply that the Regulation Rule was in fact a rule that applied to model aircraft. As such, the FAA lacked the authority under FAA Modernization and Reform Act to issue it. The court agreed and vacated the Rule to the extent it applied to model aircraft, concluding:
Congress is of course always free to repeal or amend its 2012 prohibition on FAA rules regarding model aircraft. Perhaps Congress should do so. Perhaps not. In any event, we must follow the statute as written.
The reaction to the case appears to be split. Manufacturers see the Regulation Rule as a sensible way to encourage responsibility among users. However, many users argue they have been using model aircraft sensibly for years and that this rule was a fix to a problem that did not exist. We’ll continue monitoring this story and bring you an update if Congress changes the law in response to this case.