An appeals court has overturned a recent Federal Aviation Administration rule requiring hobbyists drone operators to register their tiny unmanned, non-commercial aircraft.
Recreational drone operator John Taylor filed a complaint in 2015 arguing that Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) [PDF] forbids the FAA from issuing any new regulation, including a mandatory registration requirement, on model aircraft.
A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously vacated that rule today, barring the FAA from forcing hobbyists to register, but leaving in place other FAA rules related to drone use.
“Taylor does not think that the FAA had the statutory authority to issue the registration rule and require him to register,” he wrote. “Taylor is right.”
The FAA had argued that nothing in the FMRA prevents the agency from changing course and requiring registrations to model aircraft. The agency contended that the Registration Rule isn’t actually new, but “merely a decision to cease its exercise of enforcement discretion.”
The court disagreed, noting that the word “new” is all over the registration rule, including a “new registration process” for online registration of model aircraft.
“The Registration Rule does not merely announce an intent to enforce a pre-existing statutory requirement,” the judge wrote, but is “a rule that creates a new regulatory regime for model aircraft.”
In short, the decision reads, despite the fact that FMRA bars any promulgation of new rules or regulations for model aircraft, the 2015 registration rule is, in the FAA’s own words, a “rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”
“Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler,” Judge Kavanaugh wrote. “The Registration Rule is unlawful as applied to model aircraft.”
The court also addressed the FAA’s argument that the rule is consistent with the agency’s general directives as laid out by FMRA: to “improve aviation safety.”
While acknowledging that aviation safety is “obviously an important goal” that could be furthered by registering drones, Kavanaugh cites Section 336 of the act once again, which says that “Policy considerations cannot override our interpretation of the text and structure of the Act.”
“Congress is of course always free to repeal or amend its 2012 prohibition on FAA rules regarding model aircraft,” Kavanugh noted. “Perhaps Congress should do so. Perhaps not. In any event, we must follow the statute as written.”