D.C. Circuit Strikes Down Drone Operator Registration Rule

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit invalidated a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule that required non-commercial drone owners to register with the agency. 

The court held that the drone registration rule, known as the 2015 Registration Rule, violated the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which prohibits the FAA from issuing any rule or regulation of “model aircraft.”

The invalidated registration rule required all small drone operators to register each of their drones with the FAA before operating them outdoors. To complete the registration process, owners were required to provide the FAA with their contact information, pay a $5 registration fee, and mark a unique identifier number issued by the FAA on their drone.

Instigated days before Christmas in 2015, the registration system processed more than 300,000 registrations in its first 30 days of operation. In total, 760,000 recreational drone operators registered more than 1.6 million drones since the inception of the registration system. The FAA estimates that recreational drone operators will buy 2.3 million drones in 2017 and 13 million by the end of 2020.

The invalidated registration system was instituted after a spate of incidents in which drones flew in–and in some cases crashed–FAA restricted airspace, including over stadiums while events were being held and at least two incidents at the White House complex.

In 2015, the FAA asserted that state and local regulation of drones could not include an independent registration system because: “Federal registration is the exclusive means for registering [drones] for purposes of operating an aircraft in navigable airspace, [and] no state or local government may impose an additional registration requirement on the operation of [drones] in navigable airspace without first obtaining FAA approval.”

At least 38 states are considering legislation related to drones in the 2017 legislative session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. These legislative proposals cover a wide range of drone-related activities from prohibiting the use of drones to interfere with wildfire suppression efforts to prohibiting the harassment of livestock using drones. 

Last week, the Drone Federalism Act – a bipartisan bill concerning state and local authority to regulate drones – was introduced in the Senate.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the bill’s sponsors, said that state and local governments “have a legitimate interest in protecting public safety and privacy from the misuse of drones . . . [and the bill] allows communities to create low-altitude speed limits, local no-drone zones or rules that are appropriate to their own circumstances.”