Drone Hobbyists Don't Need to Register With FAA, Court Rules

By George Khoury, Esq. on May 24, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The US Court of Appeals for D.C. issued a ruling that drone hobbyists are rejoicing over. The 2015 FAA emergency regulation that required all drone and model aircraft users to register their glorified toys was struck down last week. Now hobbyists can fly their drones, and RC planes, without fear of being excessively fined or criminally prosecuted for failing to register.

The appellate court found that the FAA overstepped their authority in promulgating rules that cover model aircrafts flown for recreation or as a hobby. Though the court acknowledged that the FAA had an important purpose in creating the registration requirement, it also explained that a law passed in 2012 should have prohibited the 2015 rules from being approved. This case was brought by a drone hobbyist who challenged the new rules affecting his pastime.

Commercial Drones Still Regulated

Despite the fact that many of the (really expensive) drones available on the market for hobbyists are of the same quality as those used by commercial drone operators, the court only overturned the registration requirement for hobbyists. The court reasoned that the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act (FAA MRA) only prohibited the FAA from issuing regulations pertaining to unmanned aircrafts flown for hobby or recreation.

Since aerial drones have many commercial uses, ranging from event photography to product delivery to land surveying and more, the 2015 regulations still apply to commercial operators and commercial purposes. While these regulations put a damper on many businesses' dreams of using drones due to public safety concerns, the court could only use the 2012 FAA MRA to invalidate the requirements that apply to hobbyists. However, it should be noted that drones or model aircrafts over 55 lbs. are still likely to fall under the FAA's jurisdiction due to their size and weight pushing those outside normal hobby activities.

Wild West for Drone Hobbyists?

This won't change much for many of the drone and model aircraft hobbyists. Many people ignored the law as enforcement seemed unlikely. Those hobbyists that did follow the law, found that the registration requirement was not very onerous at all. All it required was filling out a form online, paying $5, and writing your name and FAA registration number on your drone or model plane.

The court did explain that the congress could pick up where the FAA failed. The court was bound by law to interpret the regulations, and noted that congress is vested with the authority to make new law, not the courts. However, with all the other pressing political matters, it might be some time before a law regulating drone hobbyists sees the light of day.

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