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Appellate Court Bars FAA from Requiring Hobbyists to Register Drones: What It Means for Drone Operators and Local Agencies

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will increase from 2.5 million in 2016 to 7 million in 2020, 4.3 million hobbyist UAS and 2.7 million commercial UAS. In response to concerns about the safety of the national airspace system and of people and property on the ground, the FAA issued a rule in December 2015 titled “Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft,” (the “Registration Rule”) which requires web-based registration for small UAS, including model aircraft. Failure to register small UAS under the Registration Rule could subject operators to civil and criminal penalties.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently struck down the FAA’s authority to issue those registration requirements as to model aircraft. (Taylor v. Huerta, 15-1495, D.C. Cir. 2017.) The Court’s ruling makes it unlikely that the FAA will attempt to further regulate hobbyist small UAS use absent new Congressional authority. However, hobbyist drone operators could face attempts by state or local agencies that seek to develop and administer new rules and regulations on model drone use. Under this scenario, hobbyists could ultimately have to navigate different rules and regulations in different jurisdictions.

The ruling has no impact on businesses using small UAS for commercial purposes; such operators are still required to register their small UAS with the FAA. However, if hobbyists attempt to monetize their use of small UAS (and associated photography and surveillance videos), they must understand what activities could transform them into a commercial user subject to the Registration Rule.

To understand what the Court’s ruling means for drone operators and local agencies, please click here to read an article published in The Recorder by Meyers Nave attorney Kristopher Kokotaylo. Please also click here to read Kris’ Client Alert that covers additional legal and practical implications of the Court’s decision.