A Maryland drone enthusiast has sued the Federal Aviation Administration in federal court over its decision to require all drone operators to register their aircraft with the agency.
Last month, the FAA released an “interim final rule” that makes it illegal for anyone to fly a drone without first registering it with the government. That someone decided to sue the agency over it isn’t surprising, because the regulation is controversial for a couple reasons. First, it was implemented on an “emergency” basis with no time for public comment, as is customary with most regulations. Second, the rule may violate the FAA Modernization Act of 2012, a law that notes “the administrator oft he Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft if . . . [the aircraft is] flown strictly for hobby or recreational use.”
It is somewhat surprising, however, that the Academy of Model Aircraft, a large hobby group that has spoken out multiple times against the registration program, isn’t behind this first lawsuit. Instead, John A. Taylor, an insurance attorney and drone pilot, filed the suit in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Christmas Eve. Taylor wrote in the suit that he’s “pursuing this matter almost entirely in the public interest.”
“Adoption of the Interim Final Rule is a blatant violation of the prohibitions specified in the Act. It is a ‘rule or regulation’ regarding a model aircraft that are flown strictly for hobby or recreational use and which are operated meeting the safety criteria of the Act,” he wrote. “The FAA’s arguments are nothing more than an attempted end run to evade a directive from Congress that could not be clearer.”
News of the lawsuit was broken earlier Monday by Forbes, and Taylor is receiving lots of support from his fellow pilots on social media, many of whom have offered to donate to him to help pay for his legal challenge.
I obtained a copy of the lawsuit and an emergency motion for stay of the rule (which was immediately denied), and have embedded both of them below.
The argument Taylor makes—that the registration program is a violation of the FAA Modernization Act of 2012—is one I’ve heard from several drone law attorneys and it seems entirely possible that the FAA may be in for another long legal proceeding.
While the suit does appear to have at least some merit, it remains to be seen how seriously the court will take it. His emergency motion for stay was quickly denied and in several places in the suit Taylor makes points that don’t seem more-or-less to be potshots at the agency and its explanation for starting the program (namely that it needed to get started before Christmas and that it was starting the program to educate pilots about flying safely).
“To the degree the FAA may argue that the Interim Final Rule is an educational undertaking, it is noteworthy that nothing in the Interim Final Rule includes any educational mandate. A person may register while knowing nothing whatsoever about safe operation. Of course, once the FAA leads us out onto this slippery slope, there’s no telling where they’ll take it,” he wrote, adding that “Children all over America who receive hobby aircraft for Christmas will be unlawfully required to navigate a federal regulatory website, patently prohibited by Congress, prior to using their new acquisitions.”
It was inevitable that someone would challenge the FAA in court. Taylor’s lawsuit doesn’t mean that others, perhaps even the AMA, will also pursue legal action. But at the very least, there is at least one drone pilot fighting to maintain the status quo.