The United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently upheld a verdict on behalf of a drone enthusiast that found that the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rule requiring that individual recreational users of drones register the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and pay a $5 fee. The registration was good for 3 years and would need to be renewed as long as the UAV was still in use. Failure to register could result in fines and/or jail sentences.
The FAA’s registration rule was initially implemented in December 2015. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the rule in question conflicted with an unambiguous policy first expressed in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Congress noted in that legislation that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding model aircraft.” The D.C. Circuit found that drones operated for recreational purposes were “model aircraft” and that the registration rule was in fact a regulation of “model aircraft”.
This ruling does not apply to the operators of UAV’s that are operated in the commercial sphere. The wording in the opinion that states that it applies only to registration of any UAV’s flown while keeping the UAV within actual sight of the operator and if the UAV is also “flown for hobby or recreational purposes” appears to make it inapplicable to most commercial applications of UAVs.
This leads to the natural question of what’s next. The answer to that question is not really clear. Congress can amend it’s 2012 legislation in such a way that it applies to “model aircraft”. In the alternative, it could stand pat and allow the D.C. Circuit’s ruling to stand and apply to regulation of any “model aircraft” moving forward. I anticipate that there will be a lot of involvement by interested industry groups that will seek to craft legislation that will benefit the various players in this game, including hobbyists, commercial operators, and those responsible for national security.
If you are a client and you are reading this and operate or plan to operate UAVs for commercial purposes, then you should make sure that your UAVs are registered with the FAA. If you are a hobbyist, like me, then you don’t have to worry about registering your UAV or re-registering it when your current registration expires, unless of course Congress steps in or the U.S. Supreme Court is asked to weigh in. If you are counsel to commercial operators of UAVs, be prepared to advise your clients about the ins and outs of this ruling.