Court Eliminates Registration Requirement for Model Aircraft

Lozano Smith Client News Brief
September 2017
Number 55

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may no longer require the registration of model aircraft, following the D.C. Circuit's decision in Huerta v. Taylor.

Model aircraft, commonly known as drones, are unmanned aircraft that weigh 55 pounds or less and are used exclusively for recreational purposes. Small unmanned aircraft used for any commercial purposes, or unmanned aircraft heavier than 55 pounds, are not impacted.

The Huerta case challenged a rule promulgated by the FAA in 2015 known as the Registration Rule that required model aircraft to be registered with the FAA. Challenged on the basis of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which specifically prohibits the FAA from promulgating any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, the court barred the application of the Registration Rule to model aircraft.

The court did not consider the application of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act to an FAA circular that restricted model aircraft flight in the Washington, D.C. area, because the challenge fell outside of the 60-day window to challenge the rule and the plaintiff did not have reasonable grounds for the delay. FAA Advisory Circular 91-57A continues to prohibit the operation of model aircraft in Prohibited Areas, Special Flight Rule Areas or the Washington National Capital Region Flight Restricted Zone without specific authorization.

Previously, the FAA took the position that state and local government regulation of unmanned aircraft must be consistent with the federal statutory and regulatory framework. Federal registration was the exclusive means for registering unmanned aircraft, and no state or local government could impose an additional registration requirement without first obtaining FAA approval. The court's ruling did not address whether state and local governments may now be permitted to require registration of model aircraft pursuant to their police power.

Regardless, state and local governments may still rely on their traditional police power in areas such as land use, zoning, privacy, trespass and law enforcement operations to regulate uses of unmanned aircraft, including model aircraft. FAA examples of permissible state and local regulations include prohibitions against use for voyeurism, against use for hunting or fishing, and against attaching firearms or similar weapons.

For more information on the Huerta decision or on drone regulation in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

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As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.