The NCSL Blog


By Amanda Essex

A federal court has struck down the requirement from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for drone registration by hobbyists who operate their drone purely for recreation.

A hexacopter drone is flown during a drone demonstration in Cordova, Md. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)A hexacopter drone is flown during a drone demonstration in Cordova, Md. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)In the opinion, the court stated that “[u]nmanned aircraft operated for recreational purposes are known as ‘model aircraft,’ ” thereby directly implicating Section 336 of the FMRA. This paragraph from the opinion by the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia provides a clear summary:

“In short, the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act provides that the FAA 'may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,' yet the FAA’s 2015 Registration Rule is a 'rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.' Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler. The Registration Rule is unlawful as applied to model aircraft.”

In response to the court’s decision, the FAA released the following statement:

“We are carefully reviewing the U.S. Court of Appeals decision as it relates to drone registrations. 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. We are in the process of considering our options and response to the decision.”

In December 2015, the FAA implemented an interim final rule requiring drone owners to register their drone—also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS—with the administration for drones weighing between .55 lbs. and 55 lbs.

In response, a drone hobbyist and attorney, John Taylor, filed a lawsuit alleging that the rule violated Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act (FMRA), which specifies that “the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, if—(1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use.”

Regardless of the FAA’s decision, Congress is extremely likely to address drone usage in its upcoming bill to reauthorize the FAA, for which current authority expires Sept. 30. Both the House and Senate are holding hearings on their respective bills, including the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s hearing on drones in March.

Learn more about state and federal regulation of UAS on NCSL’s webpage. NCSL also has a report on this topic, Taking Off: State Unmanned Aircraft Systems Policies, released in June 2016. An update including all 2016 legislation is also available.

Amanda Essex is a policy specialist in the transportation and loves to drone on about drone regulation.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.