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Court Rules Hobbyists No Longer Have to Register Drones with the FAA

BY Zacc Dukowitz
23 May 2017

A U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that hobbyists no longer have to register their drones with the FAA.

Until this ruling any drone enthusiast who wanted to fly a drone weighing over .55 pounds was required to register themselves with the FAA.


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The court case was based in D.C., and was brought by drone hobbyist John Taylor. The case hinged on the definition of a model aircraft (according to the FAA model aircrafts do not have to be registered; drones do). The legal argument had to do with the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which states that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”

Taylor’s lawyers argued that the FAA doesn’t have jurisdiction regarding what the law classifies as a model aircraft, and won.

“Taylor does not think that the FAA had the statutory authority to issue the Registration Rule and require him to register. Taylor is right.”

– Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh

The drone hobbyist registration requirement was first instituted on December 15, 2015. After the first month the FAA reported over 300,000 drones had been registered. The total number of drones registered in the U.S. today is just south of 700,000 (if not more).

It’s important to note that the ruling is not yet enforceable, as the court gave the FAA seven days (or until this Friday, May 26) to consider its legal options. For the moment, drone hobbyists flying drones weighing .55 pounds or more are still required to register their drones with the FAA.

Varying Responses to the Ruling

Although some drone hobbyists see the decision in Taylor v. Huerta as a win, many in the drone industry, including us here at UAV Coach, are more concerned than we are excited.

The FAA registry was first created as a way to address the incredibly rapid growth of drone ownership in the U.S., and put some kind of protection in place against the use of drones for invasions of privacy, as well as rogue drone flights in protected airspace or in other scenarios where they might endanger people, like flights over people.

From our perspective, the registration system serves two function simultaneously.

The first function is practical, and is about accountability. Knowing that your drone is registered will deter, off the bat, reckless flying because you know the chances of getting caught are much higher if your UAV is registered.

The second function of the registration system is about public perception. The drone industry has always had an uphill battle when it comes to convincing people that drones are actually used for good. The registration system provides a mechanism to demonstrate to the public that drone pilots—both hobbyists and commercial pilots alike—act in good faith and want to fly safely and legally.

The thinking regarding the first function is pretty simple. If your drone is registered, you’ll probably be more likely to think twice before you fly into protected airspace, over crowds, or in other scenarios that may endanger people. Registration also protects drone pilots themselves, by allowing clear identification of who was piloting what, and whose responsibility is tied to a particular drone.

And rogue drone flights are no joke. China has had so many rogue drones ground airplanes that DJI recently issued a $145,000 bounty for information that would help catch the pilots responsible. A rogue drone that goes undetected could take down a plane, and potentially kill people.

Flying over people is also a scary scenario—and this brings us to the second function of the registration system mentioned above, which has to do with public perception.

Just three days ago, cameras at Petco Park, the stadium belonging to the San Diego Padres, caught a drone being flown above the audience and then crashing into the stands.

That video is pretty scary. Imagine being in the stands, and being uncertain whether those drone blades are going to come crashing into you. Talk about bad PR.

To put this in a broader perspective, it’s projected that by 2020 over 7 million drones will have been sold in the U.S.

As drone ownership grows, incidents like the one at Petco Park are bound to occur, perhaps more and more and more frequently. A public outcry over drones hurting or even threatening to hurt people could lead to a severe legislative backlash, with laws that might drastically limit drone activities just as we are starting to see the industry really take off.

While the FAA’s registration system isn’t going to stop all rogue drone flights, it does serve to put some kind of check in place. Without it, we don’t have much to go on.

Taylor himself suggested one possible solution:

“There needs to be enforcement and education. Perhaps drone manufacturers should make you take a test before you are able to unlock their app in order to fly the drone.”

– John Taylor

But this solution relies on private companies making their own decisions, and doesn’t provide any kind of blanket protection against rogue flights, so it seems unlikely at best. Whatever happens next for drone hobbyists, it seems clear that this recent court decision will only be one chapter in a longer period of development regarding UAV regulations.

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