Last Friday (5/19/17), a federal court ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) drone registration policy for hobbyists is illegal. The immediate effect of this decision is that hobbyists no longer need to register with the FAA or maintain a current registration. It is not, however, a blanket exemption for all hobbyists. Recreational flyers must meet a few stipulations to be relieved from registration (more on that later). Those who fly RC models for commercial purposes must still register as well.
It is important to understand that this decision only impacts the registration aspect of RC model flying. The rules of safe and responsible flying have not changed. Nor does this case completely remove hobbyists from under the FAA's umbrella. The FAA still has teeth to go after modelers who endanger others by flying recklessly or in prohibited areas. We still have to follow the rules.
Genesis of the Lawsuit
When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, it included wording that specifically addressed model aviation. Section 336 of the bill stated that the FAA could not introduce any new rules related to model aircraft. While the widespread proliferation of RC multi-rotors was causing alarm in the halls of the FAA and even among long-time hobbyists, the agency would have to work within the bounds of any existing policies to address their concerns. For this reason, many were surprised when the FAA announced in late 2015 that it was introducing a requirement for RC pilots to register in a national database.
The FAA's stance was that the policy was not new because model aircraft are still aircraft by definition, and aircraft registration had long been a requirement. That the agency had never previously demanded modelers to register could be attributed to them simply exercising enforcement discretion. Several legal challenges were filed, but none had sufficient traction to halt the registration program before it went into effect in December of 2015.
The challenge that eventually struck down registration was filed by John Taylor, a hobbyist and attorney in the Washington DC area. The crux of his argument was simple: the FAA had created a new rule for modelers after Section 336 forbade them from doing so. Federal judges ultimately agreed.
While it seemed obvious to many that the FAA was blatantly ignoring the letter and the spirit of Section 336, few were confident that Taylor would prevail. There is a precedent for courts giving leeway to government agencies in interpreting grey areas of statutes (Chevron deference). Apparently, the judges in this case felt that Congress' intent in Section 336 was clear and allowed no wiggle room. In fact, the written decision states, "Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler."
Who is Affected?
Section 336 also outlines the stipulations for RC pilots to qualify as hobbyists in the eyes of Congress. Meeting those requirements today excuses you from having to register. By design, the demands are worded broadly enough that they capture most (but not all) recreational RC pilots. For instance, models are limited to no more than 55 pounds. RC pilots must also stay clear of full-scale air traffic. I won't list all of the requirements here, but it is pretty straightforward stuff.
While Section 336 does not require membership in a community-based organization (CBO), it does stipulate that hobbyists must operate under the safety guidelines of a nationwide CBO. The most prominent CBO for aeromodelers is the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA safety code can be found on their website.
I think it is crucial to understand that this decision is not in any way an endorsement by the court of the RC hobby. The outcome would have been the same whether the activity in question was bowling, knitting, or cliff diving. The judges merely determined that the FAA did something that Congress told it not to do. Rightly or wrongly, the FAA will certainly pursue other avenues to exercise oversight of model aviation.
The FAA issued a statement indicating that they are considering their options going forward. They could appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court. Legal experts think that this scenario is unlikely, especially considering that the circuit court's decision was unanimous.
Other parties, including the AMA also have pending cases against the FAA related to model aircraft. The results of those cases will also shape how the FAA moves forward. Attorney Jonathan Rupprecht (who assisted Taylor) list these cases in his blog. Rupprecht also provides a high-level analysis of the 'Taylor vs FAA' decision and its potential implications.
The FAA may attempt to reclaim their lost authority through legislative means. This could be via changes to Section 336 in the next FAA reauthorization bill.
What About the Troublemakers?
I don't know what the final solution should be, but I think that it starts with an emphasis on local-level education efforts and peer-based enforcement of rules.
There is no question that the current battle of wills between the FAA and traditional RC pilots can be traced back to the widespread popularity of affordable, GPS-enabled multi-rotors. The autonomous features of these machines allow rookie pilots to fly successfully without the benefit of any peer training. In addition to providing flying skills, such training has traditionally included lessons on etiquette, maintenance, and safety as well. Unfortunately, a handful of pilots without this complete skill set did foolish and dangerous things with their models. You can post only so many videos of drones flying near airports and crashing into skyscrapers before the FAA is forced to react.
I think that I speak for most modelers when I say that something must be done to educate and reign in dangerous RC pilots. We agree with the FAA on that core concept. Yet registration was a hastily-conceived and ineffective answer to the problem. I outlined my gripes when the program was rolled out and my opinions have not changed. I still feel that it was a paper tiger that could be easily circumvented by anyone with malicious intent. At the same time, I think that most drone scares are the result of ignorance rather than malice. I don't know what the final solution should be, but I think that it starts with an emphasis on local-level education efforts and peer-based enforcement of rules. My sincere hope is that modelers and the FAA can work together to create an effective program that demands personal accountability without placing unnecessary rules on the masses.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.