On May 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit invalidated a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that required the owners of recreational drones—unmanned aircraft system (“UAS”)—to register with the agency.  The court held that the regulation violated the same law that the FAA had used, in part, to justify the requirement.  The court’s ruling had no effect on a separate registration requirements for drones used in commercial operations.

In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act passed in 2012, Congress prohibited the FAA from issuing any rule or regulation of “model aircraft,” which it defined as an unmanned aircraft “flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”  In December 2015, however, the FAA issued a regulation that imposed registration and marking requirements on all unmanned aircraft between 0.55 and 55 pounds.  In a move that, at the time, we called a “legal sleight of hand,” the FAA converted Congress’s prohibition on model aircraft regulations into a definition of aircraft that were covered by the new regulation.  As we said then, this was “arguably the exact inverse of Congress’s intent.”

In the ruling this week, the appellate court thought the same:  “The FAA’s 2015 Registration Rule, which applies to model aircraft, directly violates that clear statutory prohibition,” the court said.  “Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler.”

The registration rule had required any individual who owned a small drone to register the UAS with the FAA before operating the device.  Owners were required to provide contact information, pay a $5 registration fee, and display a unique identifier number issued by the FAA on the UAS.   Nearly 300,000 owners registered drones in the first 30 days of the registration system.

The court was unpersuaded by the FAA’s arguments that the rule did not violate the statute, rejecting the agency’s contention that the rule was either authorized by the agency’s other statutory authority or by the statute’s preamble related to efforts to “improve aviation safety.”

The plaintiff, Washington, D.C.-area drone hobbyist John Taylor, also challenged the FAA’s order prohibiting the operation of model aircraft in certain areas, including the Washington, D.C. Flight Restricted Zone.  The court rejected this challenge because Taylor did not file suit within 60 days of the order’s issuance, as required, and did not have a reasonable reason for his delay.