Don’t Like the FAA’s Drone Registration? Sue Them!

When the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began requiring registration of quadcopters (“drones”) in the US, it took a number of hobbyists by surprise. After all, the FAA regulates real 747s, not model airplanes. [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist, has done what you do when faced with a law that you believe is unjust: he’s filed a lawsuit in the DC District Court, claiming that the FAA has overstepped their mandate.

Which one is the "aircraft"?
Which one is the “aircraft”?

The lawsuit will hinge (as legal battles often do) on the interpretation of words. The FAA’s interpretation of quadcopters to be “aircraft” rather than toys is at the center of the dispute. Putting hobbyists into a catch-22, the FAA also requires recreational RC pilots to stay under a height of 400 feet, while requiring “aircraft” to stay above 500 feet except for emergencies, take-off, or landing. Which do they mean?

The editorial staff at Hackaday is divided about whether the FAA ruling makes no sense at all or is simply making hobbyists “sign their EULA“. This writer has spent enough time inside the Beltway to know an expanse of a mandate when he sees it, and no matter which body of the US government is to blame, regulating toy planes and helicopters as if they were commercial aircraft is an over-reach. Even if the intentions are benign, it’s a poorly thought-out ruling and should be revisited.

If you agree, you now have the chance to put your money where your mouth is. The DC Area Drone User Group is putting together a legal defense fund to push [Taylor]’s case. Nobody would be cynical enough to suggest that one can buy the legal system in the US, but, paraphrasing Diamond Dave, it sure as heck can buy a good enough lawyer to get the law changed.

48 thoughts on “Don’t Like the FAA’s Drone Registration? Sue Them!

  1. This will end up being a huge waste of resources. Of course UAS devices are aircraft. Different regulations for different sized ones, no big deal. The EULA thinking is more of a MOU (memorandum of understanding).

    The FAA’s mandate is safety. Keeping aircraft separation standards is about safety. It ends up being easier to manage uncontrolled aircraft (devices without transponders) out of the airspace that most controlled aircraft fly. Ag aircraft, and helicopters will operate below 400ft so it is still “see and avoid”. An Ag Cat doing 80Kts, will have a heck of a time seeing a 250 sized racing quad going 40mph. If that quad goes through the windscreen, the pilot likely will get injured.

    This is not worth fighting.

    1. > The FAA’s mandate is safety.

      If that was the case, then we need to ground any and all planes, immediately. That way, there would be no more plane fatalities or wrecks.

      Same idea would work for banning vehicles, to prevent vehicle fatalities and injuries.


    2. Under the current rule, the drone and the crop duster would both be legally operating in shared airspace, so long as both were registered properly – And they would both slam into each other and it would still be a mess. The current rule does nothing to prevent this, but makes plenty of pointless hoop-jumping necessary. Seems to me that the point you were trying to make was that the law is not worth fighting because it was helpful… But its not helpful. The current rule only causes hardships with no actual improvement in safety. Those are exactly the kinds of oppressive laws worth fighting.

      On a side note, any aircraft windows rated for bird strikes should withstand a 250g quad at 40 MPH. (Bird strike ratings generally require surviving a 4Lb-171MPH collision.)

      1. “And they would both slam into each other and it would still be a mess. ”

        You can argue that in any kind of vehicle in any medium. The registration drive was to get operators aware of the issues and to make sure operators are working within reasonable bounds. I think just the fact of requiring line of sight would give more awareness for the UAS operator to stay clear of the area the cropduster is working.

        On the aside, I read a quote in last week’s Aviation Week that testing is showing the bird strike model assumption doesn’t hold up for small aircraft.

        1. If it were simply a public service announcement on the rules of safety, why isn’t it just a EULA type document that you sign and then you’re registered? Why the need for paying fees? No, this is more of a way to fleece the people with fees and to expand government control of the people. You trust too much in demonstrably corrupt government.

    3. If someone really wants to park a large hexacopter in the glide path of a major airport, there is nothing really stopping them until its too late. Aside from that, there are ALREADY laws in place that could be used to prosecute people who do such things. We don’t need more meaningless laws to punish stupid people. Again, those people are stupid, and as a wise man once said “you can’t fix stupid”.

      Control and money is what this FAA overreach is really after.

      If the general aviation lobby was really concerned about safety, they’d be beating their own bushes. Like getting idiots out of V-tail doctor killers who don’t belong in those flying death traps and the gazillion other things that make general aviation terribly unsafe as it is. Yet they are pushing to make getting a sport license as easy as getting a drivers license, and I don’t know the last time any of you actually drove a car, but laws don’t seem to do shit for keeping you safe on the road….

      I fly fixed wing R/C planes, not “drones”, and I know the rules of safe flight, and I adhere to those rules just like others like me have been doing for many decades and how many R/C planes have brought down full sized aircraft again?

      Now, how many incidents of PILOT ERROR have resulted in fatality accidents involving general and commercial aviation aircraft?

      Who should be afraid of who here?

      All this FAA crap does is give a bunch of drama queen pilots with their own issues red meat to wag their finger at and divert attention from their own houses problems.

      You want to say, “don’t fly above 400 feet and stay away from airports” – Fine, have a federal law passed stating that is illegal. Even though you could already pick from a litany of other laws to prosecute those offenses with. But making people register their R/C planes on a national registry that anyone can look up, and yet we can’t even do that for guns? It’s ridiculous and hyperbolic and only gives drama queen drone haters a snitch line to call and get innocent people in hot water when in all likelihood there was never a problem to begin with.

      Thanks for nothing, FAA.

  2. The problem is that this affects more than just quadcopters. I’ve been flying fixed wing aircraft for years. No problems, no incidents, simple rules. Why change it just because of a new type of model aircraft? The FAA is for flying people and the the machines that can transport people. If the device is incapable of transporting a person, then it doesn’t need regulation… Also the new rules are very unclear. They keep saying .55 lbs, but not where that is measured. At sea level? above sea level? in orbit? If they had stated a mass that might be different, but then I would have to register a large balloon.

    This is worth fighting.

    1. This is really nitpicky: If its flying, and its going to enter the public airspace, its the FAA’s business that its there. Sorry.

      And what does it matter where the weight is measured?
      1. You are not getting into orbit without passing through FAA controlled airspace. Period
      2. If you fly a large balloon into FAA airspace, they do notice, and it can be an issue.
      3. Its not just about machines that transport people. FAA is any machine that can enter controlled airspace. That includes unmanned machines. Because you have to enter the same airspace that manned machines are entering. So you have to follow the same rules and guidelines, or you are a hazard to everyone else in that airspace.

      So what are you fighting for? To LESSEN the very strict rules that allow us to have safe airspace? What will this gain? How will this help ensure safety of US airspace? Or airspace overall?

      1. The argument is an interesting one to make based on legalese – the kind of shit where the definition of something as benign as the word “is” matters.

        The FAA elected to define quads and their like as aircraft, with specific rules for these quads in mind.

        The legal problem is that the FAA has rules about where aircraft can fly, one set which says aircraft must be flown above 500 ft except when taking off, landing or in emergencies. They have another set of rules which says aircraft must be flown below 400ft and in the line of sight of the operator.

        Common sense says these are clearly two different things, but common sense and law do not go together.
        And by together do i mean
        with someone or something else?
        at the same time?
        so as to be joined or united?
        by action with one or more people?

        Common sense says which one it is, but in the legal arena, the specific definition matters very, very much.

        1. The FAA already defines many different categories of aircraft and operators, and imposes different rules on different categories. This is a reasonable exercise of their regulatory function, because it’s clear a quadcopter, as Cessna, and a 747 ought to operate under different rules because the consequences of fucking up are so wildly different.

    2. In all fairness, the RC aircraft hobby before multirotors was very good at regulating itself. The operators generally were well-educated on safety, etc. The multirotors are bringing in copious number of people that aren’t like that because they’re now easy to operate by people of very little skill.

      The weight complaint is odd. The question of weight in orbit doesn’t figure. The actual weight of an object doesn’t change much by altitude. An object still weighs almost the same from sea level to low earth orbit. 300-400km means little when it’s from an object 6,371km in radius. Looks like about 12% difference in weight. At 400ft, I don’t think you’d notice.

        1. Yes, and it also became much, much easier. Quadcopters are generally designed so any doofus can fly one. Old-school R/C aircraft are much more difficult to fly. Those two things drastically increased the number of R/C aircraft in the air and reduced the average skill level of the operators.

    3. Allen, Are you also suggesting that I can put anything on the freeway and do whatever I like with it so long as it can’t carry a person? After all the DMV mandate is for vehicles, not toys.
      This next point is a bit pedantic, but for all realistic intents and purposes, it doesn’t really matter where you weigh the vehicle. Even in orbit it “weighs” nearly as much as it does on the ground. It’s orbital momentum only makes it appear to weigh nothing to another observer in similar orbit. But if it were to stop moving relative to the earth, it would fall like a ~.5lb “aircraft”.

      1. As long as you’re not directly endangering the public or violating any road laws… then yes. Why not? I’ve run RC cars on empty freeways before or abandoned offramps. Bicycles are an interesting example of a device that is not a motor vehicle but can carry a person…. laws about bicycles are hotly debated all the time.

        And I am sorry about the pedantry. I am an engineer; dealing in exacting specifications is an occupational hazard. But a point could be made that if a device is flying, then it doesn’t weigh anything. And if it’s not flying then the FAA has no jurisdiction.

          1. In context, it makes you look like a moron. The regulation clearly means mass, and there is zero chance a court (and since we are talking about law, that is the correct test) would interpret it any other way.

        1. “But a point could be made that if a device is flying, then it doesn’t weigh anything”. No. It still weighs the same. Whether a device is being held up by the ground, a table, or a column of air makes no difference to the interaction of mass and gravity. Within your ability to measure (that is to say within a few percent), at the earths surface and anywhere within the earths atmosphere (and fairly well beyond), weight and mass are the same.

          And yes, you are almost certainly violating the road laws when you run your RC cars on an empty freeway. Your just not getting caught and a reasonable highway patrol officer would probably ignore it. But the mandate is there to protect everyone else from your personal estimation of what constitutes “empty freeway” or “endangering the public”.

    4. The FAA has jurisdiction over any craft over the US (and to a certain extent, operated by US persons anywhere) that can move independently of the ground, PERIOD, no exceptions. The law is utterly clear.

      What the FAA has done for years is offer operators of small R/C aircraft a limited exemption from regulation. There is nothing in the legislation that requires them to do that — they have done it because it made sense of their overall mission.

      Advancing technology has radically increased the number and capability of small R/C aircraft compared to even ten years ago, by reducing the cost of participation and radically reducing the skill required. Those larger numbers mean the circumstances that justified the previous regulatory exemption no longer apply. A few enthusiasts flying expensive, fiddly models out in remote fields on the weekends are a much different kettle of fish than millions of sub-$1000 ready to fly R/C aircraft that anyone can operate.

      And your carping about mass vs weight just shows you haven’t read the regulations — it says 0.55 lbs (250g). In context, it clearly means mass, and there is zero chance a court would interpret it any other way. Further, US law has defined the pound as 0.45359237 kg since 1878.

      1. “What the FAA has done for years is offer operators of small R/C aircraft a limited exemption from regulation. There is nothing in the legislation that requires them to do that”
        That is incorrect. In 2012, Congress barred the FAA from creating further legislation and requiring registration, leaving it up to the AMA to keep the hobby regulated, until otherwise stated by Congress. Unless I’ve missed something, Congress has not, in fact, stated otherwise and the FAA is actively going against a Congressional mandate, rendering any regulations it creates with regards to model aircraft (which, by the FAA’s own definition, includes quadcopters and the like) unenforceable, and irrelevant.

        1. Another issues the penalties the FAA imposed for breaking the rules are ridiculously harsh and are like something you’d find in a Soviet block country during the 1950s vs a modern day democracy.

  3. As Congress told the FAA to go away and regulate these machines, and gave them a budget to do so, the plaintiffs are on to a hiding to nothing here.
    To Mr Kennedy above. Up to this point Congress and the FAA have granted an exemption to model aircraft below a certain size. They must be flown in line of site and within a set of rules. Fully autonomous drones or machines with remote video piloting are in clear violation of those rules. Just because a drone doesn’t have space for a human occupant doesn’t mean that it’s not a hazard to other air traffic.
    Also re 0.55lbs, if you can get one up to orbit then I’m sure the FAA would be prepared to consider your case, as at that point it’s out of their jurisdiction. Below 60,000 feet it will however still weigh 0.55lbs and will fall under their control.

    1. NB: The FAA has jurisdiction over spacecraft operated by US persons, regardless of where they are launched from. This is handled by the Associate Administrator for Space Transportation (AST).

  4. It’s hard enough to see other full-sized aircraft up there… Another pilot recently told me he saw a quad copter below him while he was flying. I asked him how that was possible, since I can barely see a black plastic shopping bag zooming toward me from 50 yards.. He’s a former fighter pilot, go figure. I am not similarly gifted.

    tl;dr There’s already enough to look out for. I’d rather not be looking out for some kid’s plastic death machine at 5,000ft too.

  5. I thought the new rules only came into force if you had a camera attached???

    At the end of the day, they’re do what they like. He may win but that will just mean that the laws will be changed so that they can in future apply the rules they want. God forbid the surfs being able to police the state……….

    Off to get a new foiled hat. ;)

  6. What concerns me is the line being so low. If that implies that a full-sized (as in carries people) aircraft can come within 500ft of the ground over my house then I have a big problem with that. If it doesn’t… then what was the justification of keeping toy quad-copters so low then?

    1. They CAN come within 500 ft. They generally will not, because:
      – Local ATC will chew them out. Badly. Possibly even ground them.
      – If they are down around 500 feet and not on a final approach, they are probably in trouble. Trust me, they have bigger worries than you at that point
      – The ~500 ft rule is mostly for crop dusting and final approach. Some Ultra-lights can only fly around 500-800 ft AGL, so there’s that to think about as well.

  7. Patrol aircraft, application aircraft, and helicopters are all allowed lower than 500 AGL. The difference between birds and a quad-copter flown by the kid down the street is that birds have good ability to see and avoid aircraft. This ability doesn’t always work, but it works an overwhelming majority of the time.

  8. Just register your damn craft and follow the very sensible rules and regulations

    It’s not hard and probably could have been avoided if we in the community and the manufactures self policed a bit better, but nothing we can do about it now

  9. There is some utility in studying for the part 107 exam. But it is over reach. Was there really a huge problem with drones except for a few screwball examples? Like trying to fly over the White House. and no one really flies directly over an airport. So the 5 mile radius is overkill.

  10. Laws like this only apply to those that are willing to follow them, idiots who will endanger aircraft are going to do so anyway, you can not legislate your way to safety. It is not possible. GOV EMP…

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