Drone operators no longer need to register with FAA

U.S. recreational drones no longer need to register with the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority), the Court of Appeals ruled. 

The FAA’s legislation requiring hobby drone pilots to register their personal aircraft has been declared unlawful by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on May 19, 2017.

The decision was made following a case filed in December 24, 2015 by John Taylor, a small unmanned aircraft (UAS) enthusiast, and a Maryland insurance lawyer, believing that the FAA database was illegal and beyond its authority.

John Taylor filed a lawsuit against the FAA arguing that the FAA did not have the authority to impose registration rules over model aircraft, which includes recreational drones.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit determined on May 19, 2017 that the FAA was outside its rights in enforcing a new rule for hobbyist drone operators and ruled that model aircraft are now exempt from required registration.

Here is the integral text of the United States Court of Appeals ruling against the FAA in the Taylor v. FAA case.

So, if you fly a camera for personal use, you are now exempt from registering your drone. Just to clarify, the ruling does not affect commercial drones.

Mixed reviews in the industry

The decision of the Court of Appeals was received differently across the industry.

On the one side, groups like the Small UAV Coalition – a drone coalition with big players including Amazon, Intel, and Verizon – and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) – a drone and robotics advocacy non-profit – were disappointed.

“The FAA’s innovative approach to drone registration was very reasonable, and registration provides for accountability and education to drone pilots,”

said DJI VP of Policy & Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman in an email to Recode.

AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne said in a statement that a federal registration system “is important to promote accountability and responsibility by users of the national airspace.”

On the other side, drone hobbyists and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) considered the ruling as a victory:

“It is our belief that a community-based program works better than a federally mandated program to manage the recreational community. Federal registration shouldn’t apply at such a low threshold that it includes toys.”

FAA’s database facts

Since December 2015, US drone operators were required to register their personal drone in the FAA database. The legislation concerned any drone weighing between 0.55 pounds (250g) and 55 pounds (25kg). Non-compliance with the registration could result in legal penalties.

Up to now, over 820,000 flyers paid the $5 registration fee to receive their Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership and an ID number to display on their drone.

The goal of the FAA database is to ensure that drones are operated in a safe way as well as addressing growing security and privacy concerns in the U.S..

Legal aspects

John Taylor filed its case in January 2016 against the FAA database which he considered unlawful. The federal court for the District of Columbia Circuit shared his opinion and stated that the registration system violates the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

This law, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012, prohibited the FAA from passing any rules on the operation of model aircraft: the “Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft.”

Let me stress that the court did not rule whether the database was a good system or not, simply that the FAA did not have the authority to make such a legislation.

The ruling only affects personal drones and any aircraft operated for commercial operations under Section 333 or Part 107 still needs to be registered.

Jonathan Rupprecht on Drone Law provides great technical insights on the case and the ruling.

What’s next?

What will happen to currently registered aircraft is still unknown.

The FAA is considering how to respond to the decision.

The Department of Justice might appeal the ruling but quite a few experts, like Loretta Alkalay, New York-based aviation attorney and professor, whose opinion is reported on Forbes, believes it is unlikely that the Supreme Court would grant an appeal.

The FAA might try developing a different system to ensure safety in the shared airspace, which is what John Taylor hopes for:

“So if they say I’m decreasing safety…I’m having no impact on it at all. In fact, I hope I’m increasing safety by refocusing this on doing something that’s gonna be effective.”

Whether you’re in favor of the ruling or not and whether you registered your drone or not, make sure you fly safe!