Appeals court strikes down FAA drone registration rule

Andrew Miller of Hopkinton flies his drone at Hopkinton State Park on Saturday

Jackie Ricciardi for The Boston Globe Andrew Miller of Hopkinton flies his drone at Hopkinton State Park on Saturday

An appeals court has overturned a recent Federal Aviation Administration rule requiring hobbyists drone operators to register their tiny unmanned, non-commercial aircraft.

The court found that the FAA's drone registration rule, which debuted in December 2015, conflicts with previous federal legislation from 2012 that said that the FAA lacks the authority to regulate "model aircraft".

The registration rule is therefore unlawful, the court concluded. If not, they faced fines of up to $250,000. People who failed to comply with the regulations, meant to promote drone safety and help identify risky drone operators, risked fines and jail time.

"Taylor does not think that the FAA had the statutory authority to issue the Registration Rule and require him to register", Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the statement.

The FAA responded to the ruling on Friday by saying that it would review the decision before determining its next step, if any.

"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", the statement said. "We are in the process of considering our options and response to the decision". More than a half-million were registered that first year but some people sued. "I suspect they may be getting some phone calls".

Not all in the drone community see the ruling as a victory, however. The three-judge panel agreed that safety is an important goal, but said it's up to Congress to change the law.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is similarly disappointed in the ruling.

Taylor was not wholly successful on Friday, however, as the D.C. Circuit found his failure to meet a statutory deadline kept it from considering his challenge to a separate FAA rule that set up no-fly zones in Washington for drones.

Lawyers for the FAA argued that the registration rule is not a new requirement, but merely a "decision to cease its exercise of enforcement discretion", which falls within its mission to improve aviation safety. "They're applying a post-9/11 regulation written to protect the nation's capitol from attack by airplanes". In the eyes of the court, it seems these are really just model aircraft.

Taylor's not stopping with today's court ruling. He said he has another petition in the works that focuses on a big question surrounding drones: Who has the right to the airspace in our own backyards?

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