Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down FAA Registration Rule for Hobbyist/Recreational Drones.

On May 19, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued its decision in Taylor v. Huerta, a closely-watched case brought by a model aircraft enthusiast (Mr. John A. Taylor) challenging an FAA rule adopted in December 2015 and requiring owners of small unmanned aircraft, i.e., drones, used for purely hobby or recreational purposes to register with the FAA (the Registration Rule).  The Court concluded that the Registration Rule violated the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2012 (the Act).  More specifically, Section 336 of the Act states that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,” with “model aircraft” defined as “an unmanned aircraft that is – (1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; (2) flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and (3) flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”  After quickly determining the Registration Rule was clearly a “rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft” (and noting that “[s]tatutory interpretation does not get much simpler”), the Court held the Registration Rule was barred by Section 336 of the Act.  In so doing, the Court rejected the FAA’s arguments that the Registration Rule was (i) authorized by long-standing federal aviation statutes that pre-dated the Act, and (ii) consistent with a general directive in the Act: to “improve aviation safety.”  Although the Court struck down the Registration Rule, it declined to consider Mr. Taylor’s related challenge (also based on Section 336 of the Act) to an FAA Advisory Circular barring the operation of model aircraft in various restricted areas, including the “Flight Restricted Zone” around Washington, D.C., on the grounds that the petition, inasmuch as it challenged the Advisory Circular, was not timely filed with the Court.  Importantly, the Taylor v. Huerta decision does not affect the FAA’s ongoing registration requirements applicable to drones used for commercial purposes.