In December of 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration instituted a regulation that required hobby drone operators to register their unmanned aircraft systems with the FAA. The rule requires these operators to provide their names; physical, mailing, and email addresses; and any other information the FAA chooses to require. It also creates an online platform for registration, establishes a $5 per-individual registration fee, sets compliance deadlines, and requires all small unmanned aircraft to display a unique identifier number issued by the FAA. This rule’s enactment requires operators, who do nothing more than fly their drone around their yards or at a local park, to receive proper credentialing from the federal government prior to flying. Failure to register may lead to civil or criminal monetary penalties and up to three years’ imprisonment.
However, on May 19, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the regulation, finding that the FAA cannot require hobbyists to register their recreational drones and model aircraft because the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, signed into law in 2012, states that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”
While this ruling is a victory for hobbyists who wish to operate their personal, non-commercial drones, some industry members are not happy about the court’s holding. Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, expressed disappointment over the decision, stating in part that registration “is important to promote accountability and responsibility by users of the national airspace, and helps create a culture of safety that deters careless and reckless behavior.” Similarly, the FAA released a statement on the ruling, maintaining that it had “put registration and operational regulations in place to ensure that drones are operated in a way that is safe and does not pose security and privacy threats.”
Without registration, identifying the owners of drones that cause injury or interfere with manned flight will likely become much more difficult. However, the prohibitory language in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act is quite clear. Congress may eventually take action to require registration or to provide some other means of identifying drone owners. However, until such time, hobbyists may enjoy one less requirement for non-commercial drone operation.
L. Kyle Williams is an attorney at Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes, PLLC, in Jackson, Mississippi, and has a certificate in Remote Sensing, Air & Space Law from the University of Mississippi School of Law.