FAA’s Drone Registration System Struck Down For Hobbyists

The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has struck down a rule requiring recreational drone users and model aircraft pilots to register their drones with the FAA.

This began when [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist and attorney, filed suit against the FAA questioning the legitimacy of the FAA’s drone registration program. This drone registration began early last year, with the FAA requiring nearly all drones and model aircraft to be registered in a new online system. This registration system caused much consternation; the FAA Modernization And Reform Act of 2012 states, ““…Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft…”, defining model aircraft as any unmanned aircraft flown within visual line of sight for hobby or recreational purposes. Despite this mandate from Congress, the FAA saw fit to require registration for every model aircraft weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds, regardless of the purpose of its flight.

In our coverage of the FAA’s drone registration program, we couldn’t make heads or tails of the reasons behind this regulation. In addition to the questionable legality of this regulation, there are questions over the FAA’s mandate to regulate anything flying under the 400 foot ceiling cited in the FAA’s rules. The question of safety is also open — a 2 kg drone is likely to cause injury to a passenger on a commercial flight only once every 187 million years of operation. In short, the FAA might not have the mandate of managing the air traffic, certification, and safety of the nation’s airspace when it comes to model aircraft.

While the Circuit court struck down the rule for registration concerning model aircraft, this still only applies to small (under 55 pounds) planes and quads flown within line of sight. Commercial drone operators still fall under the purview of the FAA, and for them the drone registration system will stand.

76 thoughts on “FAA’s Drone Registration System Struck Down For Hobbyists

  1. Let’s see if it survives the inevitable appeal by the FAA.
    It’s sad that decades of responsible RC fun was hampered by a decade of cheap quads & people with more money than brains flying cameras into areas they shouldn’t be. Seems to be a sort of Eternal September situation.
    Some clarification on what ‘commercial purposes’ are would be nice. Like does showing aerobatic footage on a monetized youtube channel count? Or using one as a camera platform for your videos a la early Devin Supertramp? What if you don’t see a penny of those ads. Is racing for a prize (cash or otherwise) commercial, even if indoors? Maybe a dollar amount would be handy here.

    This decision is a good thing as far as keeping the FAA to their own rules, but there will always be idiots to ruin it for everyone else.

    1. therein lies the nature of democratization. There will always be an ugly side of cheap and easily accessible technology. The good will outweigh the bad though, lets hope.

      1. the good outweigh the bad? this IS a government agency we’re talking about here. they dont care about the good, they’ll just use the bad as a way to get more money. likely forcing training by certified pros and some kind of yearly cost to keep a license for it.

        1. It’s so weird how people act like this is some unique evil of government, like corporations don’t do everything in their power to become 21st century feudal lords.

          1. Corporations do not have their own SWAT teams, nor the ability to imprison their opponents. On the other hand, I’d prefer lots of smaller companies fist fighting for consumers rather than monopolies telling us to kiss their rears, so you have that point in your favor.

    2. 25 yrs of flying R/C I never had a single model that made even 10 lbs despite the AMA regulations always being at a 55 lb maximum. As a matter of fact, can’t remember ever seeing any model approaching even 25 lbs at a flying field, including those with a quadra engine (weed whacker) but know there are folks doing the giants too. Light, everyone works on making them light even if huge, and we have carbon fiber now to put the strength back in. 55 lbs one could make a near life size glider.

      The 400 foot altitude restriction however, did see that being broken just about every day up to an estimate of 2000 feet where it’s just a dot way up there, but there’s plenty of fun to be had within the 400 feet. The glider guys, they ALL go to very high altitude, catching thermals is what they do and those START above 400 feet, but we’re also talking about the lightest and most fragile of models.

      Prizes? Now we have a problem. There are competitions of all manner. Quickie 500 races, glider contests, much more plus prizes often up to as much as a brand new in the box $500 radio.

      FAA ever fly a model? Seems not, but they have and naturally do need some authority over airspace.

      Pity the model aviation enthusiast are being restricted because of quad enthusiasts (you can’t even call them pilots cause there’s a ‘puter doing the flying and they just steer), screwing it up for everyone.

      1. So you’d not call any modern military or airline transport pilot a pilot? Those planes are all computer-controlled.

        As for giant-scale, I see them all the time, including planes that required exemptions for the weight limit, and they’re not even half-scale planes, but 1/4.

        1. There’s a enormous difference between flying an A389 and a modern quadcopter. Anyone who thinks the two are even remotely similar clearly doesn’t warrant having this discussion with.

          1. This is irrelevant. A pilot is someone who is in control of the craft they are operating. A quad copter with auto level and GPS hold is still being controlled by a pilot. A pilot must turn on the device and launch it. Calling an RC hobbyist a non pilot because it’s not a 1940’s war bird is an insult. Do you believe pilots want to deal with all the complexities of flight? The goal is to control without a craah. Expert pilots and novice pilots will both still prefer the convenience of an autopilot system. An autopilot just decreases the learning curve required for someone who wants to enjoy the sky. Stop killing the mood.

        2. Watch many of the air disaster programs lately? More than one puts the blame on confused computers flying the plane and lying to the pilots. A bug crawls into one of the three pitot tube and thinks it a great place to set up housekeeping, renders the software incompetent, resulted is loss of all lives and a massive mid-ocean underwater search. Had 3 pitot tubes, if the pilots were allowed to fly they would have ignored the ONE failing, but software did not have that ability. Designed the pilots into a corner and failed to trust them plus LIED to them. What was it Scotty said? The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain. You bet your life! Odds are good, but it’s still odds.

          1/4 scale yes! Quadra powered. Byrons Originals come to mind. Envious of those that fly them but did not mess with them as have a personal aversion to propellers large enough to take your hand off at the wrist. I stayed .45 cu in or smaller cause am attached to my fingers and was still large enough to be ALL of the fun of flying. With .60 sized, I’ve had to drive people to the emergency room more than once, so started handing out home-made chicken sticks for free.

          Model aircraft have another problem. You’re putting something up there that flies at typically 80 mph or more, has an armor piercing engine/motor at the front and they love to pierce cars when your buddy fires up his radio on the same freq… cars because they can’t move out of the way. Yet overall they are incredibly too much fun! Family picnic every day! Best to admit the risks.

          1. I am replying just the part concerning Commercial Airplanes. (I am an Avionics Tech for a Major Airline in the US.) If you are referring to the airbus that Airfrance lost off the coast of Brazil, in regards to bad readout from the pitot tubes, then that I believe was cause by all three pitot tubes freezing, not complying with an Airbus Serivce Bulletin to replace the pitot tubes over freezing issues, and Pilot Error from two less experienced Pilots in command. One Failure doesn’t render an aircraft incompetent. It usually will alert the pilot of the failure and de-rate the aircraft’s capability, and continue flying while ignoring the bad reading. Control Logic and multiple computers all crosscheck to maintain positive control of the aircraft. Regardless the Pilots still has to observe other data to make sure everything is correct and maintain positive control of the aircraft at all times. That is where we end up with 80% + Pilot error induced incidents.

          2. As you are in aviation I do defer to you as one with more knowledge and study of the incident, and hence better recall of something I’ve merely seen on tv instead of having attended a lecture or read a report of as likely you did. My only association with aviation has been maintenance of flight simulators and an ongoing personal interest in the subject.., whereas for you it’s a living.

            I have NO problem standing corrected! And thank you.

          3. the thing is, while a plane might have crashed because a computer screwed up, those same computers will have prevented several planes from crashing because of a pilot screw up

          4. As to cockpit management, I am painfully aware of this subject. Cockpit civility was a policy very much being driven into aircrews when I was maintaining the simulators and was required to attend simulator runs to assist as needed.

            A checkflight, one crew riding along to evaluate another, was in progress and on final approach there was a momentary dispute, the descriptions made it sound like a minor technical dispute mixed with testosterone and rank. It caused a short distraction which resulted in the nav leaving the pilot’s altimeter set on barometric rather than radar altimeter, and the baro altimeter then not corrected for local pressure. Bad weather, limited visibility, instrument approach, clouds sloping downwards and a upward sloped treed terrain. They went into the trees 2 mi short of the runway. Nobody survived. Lost my best drinking buddy, a salt of the earth kinda guy.

            Civility, courtesy, respect.

          5. “What was it Scotty said? The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain. ”

            I believe the quote is “The fancier you make the plumbing the easier it is to stop up the drain.” Still on of my favorite quotes, use it all the time.

      2. Regarding prizes, perhaps a max or annual prize amount would help in this way.
        Punishing the person funding their hobby instead making sure the profesional racer isn’t hooning around Manhattan causing issues.is counter productive and likely not worth their money..
        I don’t see a good way to regulate weight as most of the drones causing problems (idiots with phantoms, light weight racers, etc) are in the same weight class as the old guy buzzing pigeons at his local field.
        Maybe restricting to only property you own or have written permission to fly on (exempting all club fields) would satisfy everyone. I’m sure some glider pilots wouldn’t like that but that’s what RFCs are for. Providing they listen this time.

        1. I have never heard about this Flight 301. From just quickly reading some articles, this was a complete failure in cockpit management. They knew something was wrong and the plane tried to tell them something was wrong yet they continued to fly as of nothing was wrong. Then a complete breakdown of basic flying doomed the flight.

          Thanks for linking this crash I will ask around about it.

          1. Synopsis. Aircraft scheduling left plane on ground for long while, schedule kept changing. Ground maintenance did not put covers on pitot tubes as they were told it would be short while – less than the time requiring covers. Plane sat for much longer. Bug made comfy home in pitot.

            Every aircraft has a backup system called Seat of the Pants and a pitot/airspeed indicator being out is one that has been common throughout history and is easily identified and entirely manageable. Multiple automation systems were competing for attention and alarming but provided seemingly conflicting information that did not indicate the cause.

            Just like the aircrew having to debate the problem to it’s disastrous end, we have an example of the same thing here. The sentence stating an insect was involved was skipped over in favor of a jump to belief it was the Airfrance disaster. We ALL jump to debate rather than practice civility. It’s our nature. It has to be taught, learned, and then respected and practiced. It is not an inborn skill, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with skill level or rank. Out of the mouths of babes…

            Thank you for your continued consideration.

    3. Except all the supposed incidences of sightings and collisions that justified the registration program and asinine rules were completely fabricated. The rules and registration were put in place as a knee-jerk reaction to a theoretical problem. Probably also a money grab.

      1. Source? How about the the FAA themselves: https://www.faa.gov/uas/resources/uas_sightings_report/

        Article on the report (some quotes below for the lazy): http://dronelife.com/2017/02/24/subtle-surprise-faas-updated-drone-sightings-report/

        “Although the data contain several reports of pilots claiming drone strikes on their aircraft, to date the FAA has not verified any collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone,” acknowledges the FAA, “Every investigation has found the reported collisions were either birds, impact with other items such as wires and posts, or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft.”

        Also from the article:

        “Reputable analyses of FAA data show that many ‘possible drone sightings’ turn out to be perfectly legitimate drone flights, or objects that clearly are not drones, and we expect these latest reports will show the same pattern,” said Kara Calvert, Director of the Drone Manufacturers Alliance.

        1. Hell, some farmers have now found out they don’t have rights to the water that lands on the surface of their land. We really do have the best laws money can buy.

      1. Indeed not. Same reason that, if an oil company finds oil under your land, but you don’t own the mineral rights, the company is well within the the law to buy the rights, drill into the deposit under your land, and pump away.
        You own the surface of your land, any approved structures on it (that don’t belong to a utility company), and the air immediately surrounding them. Even this is somewhat questionable when imminent domain comes up.

        1. That very much varies by location. It’s shady that the realtor doesn’t mention you’re only buying property rights (they may not know) but in many cases these rights
          are coupled unless otherwise specified.

          1. No they aren’t, and in many places you have to line up at the local registry office…
            so when it opens to purchase said lease.

            If your land has something valuable in it, than you can safely expect dirty tricks from the company man standing next to you.

          2. Again this varies by location. Much of the eastern US have surface and mineral rights executed under the same title. This is why you have dairy farmers getting fat checks from petroleum companies. Otherwise they’d just install the well head next door and siphon out what they want. Quiet title action is a bear.

          3. My last boss had to decide what to do with the mineral rights associated with his dead fathers estate. This was a house my boss grew up in as a child in upstate New York and the way he explained it to me was at the time of purchase his father had the choice to buy both mineral and property rights. Not sure how much of this is err to history but that’s the way he explained it to me. He made it seem like it was a great foresight because not everyone payed for the mineral rights, thinking what was under wasn’t all that valuable. Again it’s hard to say how much of this was just grieving hubris or fact, I’m not a real estate agent or historian but he did get some good money from the deal.

      1. Yes you do, up to 500ft if you live in the 11th circuit of appeals, lower if you’re on an airport approach.
        There’s a drug case in Florida where some guy was growing Pot in his green house and the locals flew at a couple hundred feet to get a warrant and the court decided that the airspace above your house was within your private space, so long as it wasn’t commonly used for air traffic; ie below 500ft and not on a runway approach. The case was thrown out because their surveillance was an invasion of privacy.

  2. This only applies to the 4th district. Sort of like if the 9th Circus (erm Circuit) made this decision, it would only apply there. District decisions only affect the district they are issued in. Makes it nice and confusing for us plebs though.

      1. I have better things to do with $500k. Considering that registration of my drone was only $5 for three years, It would take about 166,666.666… years to recover that investment.

  3. Every time I’ve flown within the past few months I’ve said to myself “I really should put my FAA registration number on my drone.” So I finally did it. I printed it out, along with my phone number, and applied it to the underside of my drone using a bit of polyurethane finish. That very day, the registration system was struck down.

    I’m not saying you have me to thank, but maybe you do?

  4. Regarding land, mineral, and water rights, in some states the (lack of) them coming with the property needs to be disclosed to you, and you have to sign off on your understanding the disclosure. I live in ag country, and if you move into our ag district, you need to sign off on a piece of paper that states that you know you are moving into an ag district and there may be smells, sounds, etc, etc, and you acknowledge that you were made aware of them, or the future possibility of them before you can purchase the property.

  5. Good, Registration is useless.

    People point out how successful car registration is. Before we moved two kids drove their daddies truck into the side of mine and my garage. 5k damage to my truck, 5k damage to my house. The truck was registered yet it did nothing to prevent it nor did it pay the damages, the kids dad said he didn’t give them permission so his insurance wasn’t liable.

    The state of MD killed its gun registration after wasting a decade of time and millions of $ and it didn’t solve any crimes.

    Registration is just about tax and control.

      1. If the kids didn’t get permission, then they stole the truck. The Dad’s auto insurance wouldn’t cover anything because the car was stolen at the time, but the Dad is still liable for his children’s actions.

        1. And given they caused $10k of damage, it would be a serious felony. And if your auto/homeowners insurance paid for the uninsured driver damage, they would then pursue the other insurance company.

          But If it was me, I would of pressed charges against the driver.

      2. Yea, it sucked. I called the local police liaison and asked why the kids weren’t arrested for stolen vehicle charges then and why they weren’t fined for giving false insurance information since they gave the dads insurance which didn’t cover them.
        My insurance took them to court but since the kids didn’t have any income they never got anything so my insurance paid the 10k in damages.

        The point though was not about insurance but about registration. It didn’t matter what was registered to whom, it didn’t prevent the ‘accident’ and it didn’t help resolve the damages either.

  6. The linked estimates on damage to aircraft seem dubious. It’s not necessarily valid to assume a 2kg drone is equivalent to a 2kg bird. A bird is made of feathers, flesh and bone, while a drone can be made of aluminium, carbon fire and flammable fuel or lithium ion batteries.

  7. Good.

    Wonder if this also nullifies the rules they set for hobby drones as well. Particularly the asinine and impossible to follow “have to notify the any airport if flying within 5 miles” rule.

      1. @gregkennedy

        What’s the sarcasm for? My house is within 5 miles of 6 airports. I live on an acre, outside of city limits, in an area most would consider rural. Yet 6 airports! Besides that, since getting my P4 I’ve not flown in one area where I was not within 5 miles of an airport.

        According to the FAA rules I’d need to notify all 6 airports around my house every single time before I fly, or come to some peppermint agreement with each airport separately. The problem is there does not seem to be a standard way to do a peppermint agreement, or at least an example of one. Never mind the fact that the airports are not actually required to *do* anything with my notification. They can, but do not have to notify pilots, the tower, etc. So what’s the point?

        As I said, it’s an asinine rule.

        1. I haven’t read all the details, does it tell how you have to notify, does it tell if they have to acknowledge it?
          /me thinks an automated system which sends an e-mail notification to the first contact us link on each airports web page might satisfy the law. Put a nice little wifi in your remote control that sends the e-mail every time you up the throttle just to be safe.

          1. You call the airport operator (not the tower) and let them know. The numbers are (supposedly published). I believe in the FAA “Before You Fly” app it not only tells you if your in the zone of an airport, but also provides you with contact information.

            There is another app “AirMap” that will allow you to electronically file your notice with the airport through D-NAS but the airport has to be modern enough to support the system. None of the ones in my area are (they don’t even have towers. Barely have runways. One of them is a frickin’ hospital with a helipad).

          2. Can’t go any deeper on comments, rocketboy001, so I had to reply to myself instead of you, but I wasn’t hinting that its easy enough so why not do it, I was hinting at, could we automate it. Could we have a recorded message call the airports in our location. Now everyone obeys the rules and 50 people fly their rc copters every day causing 50 calls to the tower who has to hire additional staff to answer those calls. Eventually the amount of time waster will make its way back up to the FAA.

          3. @Eugene

            That’s basically what AirMap is trying to do with D-NAS. If the airport is modern enough you can notify them through the app. If all airports supported this method I would not necessarily be opposed to it


            It’d still be pointless.

      2. A nearby airport added a two mile long runway and wiped out half a city in the process. They also doubled the length of the terminal buildings; now less than half of the total is in use.

        So, yes, it is possible for an airport to move closer.

        Bummer to be Leonard Griggs. Thanks for the screwed up project.

  8. R/C aeromodeling was just fine without stupid registration for a damn century – now we all knee jerk over “drones”? Good riddance to a stupid idea from the drama queens of the general aviation lobby.

    Hospital helipads are considered as “airports” according to the FAA and its BS-2-FLY app, so are lakes that can be used as a landing strip… There is one here that a plane has landed on, oh, about once in the last 50 years because the boat traffic is so high it would be dangerous and stupid to try. Why aren’t all those boats redistricted from an airport? *eye roll*. So even though I live in the country, if you put a 5 mile radius circle centered over my big, wide open back yard, you hit about 15 “airports” including all the crop duster strips that again haven’t been used in half a century.

    And what does registration and legislation do? NOTHING. Does it keep stupid people from being stupid? NO.

    Does it keep criminals from committing crimes? NO. I mean, you would expect bank robbers not to wear masks and hand out business cards so they’d be easier to catch, right?

    There are PLENTY of existing laws, like criminal negligence or criminal mischief that would cover the instances of stupid people. And if someone were going to use a drone to commit a crime, do you honestly think they would register it first!? And a crime is a crime. There are plenty of laws already in place that can be put to good use.

    Buy hey, even I’m all for actual laws saying “don’t fly above this altitude” or “stay away from airport glide paths” and letting the existing laws cover things like trespassing, voyeurism and whatever other crimes may be committed. That only makes sense, but registering? NEVER.

  9. don’t think this is good. Either registration for everyone, or for no one. Otherwise people doing commercial work legally will be at a disadvantage against ‘hobbyists’ moonlighting and doing a bit of (illegal) commercial work. It’s very hard to explain to clients that the cheap guy they’re going with instead probably isn’t licensed and insured, and the client probably doesn’t care.

  10. All that seems to be a bit extreme. Registering drones so small is pointless in terms of preventing accidents, not to mention how burdening is the bureaucracy behind registering and tracking every single drone.

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