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“Statutory Interpretation Does Not Get Much Simpler”–the FAA’s Registration Rule Gets its Wings Clipped

On May 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued its opinion in John Taylor v. Michael Huerta striking down the Federal Aviation Administration’s Registration Rule, which required the owners of small unmanned aircraft operated for recreational purposes to register with the FAA. (See Registration Rule announcement and full text of the rule.) The Registration Rule was effective on December 21, 2015, but only applied to small unmanned aircraft (UAS) used for hobby or recreation.

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Model aircraft hobbyist and successful pro se petitioner John Taylor

The pro se petitioner that challenged the FAA’s Registration Rule is Maryland attorney John Taylor, a model aircraft hobbyist. Making this particular challenge more entertaining than most, Taylor provided regular updates about the case via his Twitter feed and posted links to the briefing and oral arguments. (Taylor’s argument before the court about paper airplanes not being exempt under the FAA’s definition of what constitutes an aircraft subject the registration requirement was very effective.) Taylor even posted a meme related to the subject matter of his case:

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The Court ruled in Taylor’s favor, finding that the FAA’s Registration Rule created a new regulatory regime for model aircraft, including a “new registration process” for online registration of model aircraft that included registration, payment of a fee, to provide information, to display identification. The FAA’s Registration Rule also imposed new civil and criminal penalties on model aircraft owners that did not comply with the registration requirement. Taylor v. Huerta opinion at 7-8, citing 80 Fed. Reg. at 78,595. The Court reasoned that Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act prohibited the FAA from promulgating “any rule or regulation regarding model aircraft,” which thus makes the rule unlawful to the extent it applied to model aircraft (emphasis added):

 … the “2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act provides that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,” yet the FAA’s 2015 Registration Rule is a “rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.” Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler. The Registration Rule is unlawful as applied to model aircraft.

The take-away is simple: hobbyists do not have to register their drones.

The FAA responded to the ruling on Friday issuing the following statement:

We are carefully reviewing the U.S. Court of Appeals decision as it relates to drone registrations. The FAA 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. We are in the process of considering our options and response to the decision.

With the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holiday weekends approaching, and in light of the Taylor decision, it seems appropriate to close this update with an obligatory link to the July 4, 2014, Time magazine story, “Fireworks filmed with a drone.”