The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is still encouraging drone hobbyists to register their names on-line, despite a recent court ruling that found its registry unlawful for model aircraft. At the same time, the agency is working with the unmanned aircraft industry to find a legal or legislative fix to the situation, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
In a decision dated May 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the FAA’s on-line registry violates a provision of 2012 legislation—the Special Rule for Model Aircraft—that prevents the agency from regulating a model aircraft that is used for recreational purposes, as long as it is flown safely. The agency can petition for a rehearing within 45 days of the judgment, but industry observers assume the FAA will seek a legislative remedy from Congress.
As of the court’s decision, 763,678 hobbyists had registered through the FAA’s on-line system, paying $5 to obtain a single identification number for all of the small drones they fly.
“We’re evaluating the decision that took place,” Huerta said during a presentation on “The Future of Drones,” in the U.S. Pavilion. “We’re still encouraging people to continue to register—they are still continuing to register because it provides a very important educational opportunity. We’re working with industry to identify what the legal or perhaps legislative options are to proceed.”
Huerta suggested there may be a distinction made between model aircraft or drone hobbyists who fly within the guidelines of an organization such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics and drone enthusiasts who operate outside of an organization.
“It’s very interesting to see what the reaction from the unmanned aircraft industry has been, which is essentially to support the agency’s position on the need for a registry,” he said. “Industry has been working with Congress to try to provide some clarity on what appear on their face to be two conflicting statutes—one is the so-called modelers exemption, and the other is the need to register all aircraft.”
Asked if the FAA plans to retain the database of names while the drone registry remains in dispute, Huerta said the agency is considering the possibility that people may want to “de-register” their names.
Huerta also disclosed that an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) the FAA has assembled to develop recommendations for remote tracking and identification of drones is holding its first meeting this week. Federal agencies working together have already reached agreement on seeking amendments to federal wiretapping and privacy laws to allow them to disrupt drone flights near critical sites, he said.
“There is a lot of concern and a lot of interest on the part of law enforcement to ensure that, for critical infrastructure and facilities, there is a way to keep unmanned aircraft out,” Huerta said. “Technically, the way that is done is generally through interception of the radio frequency signal that exists between the aircraft and the base unit. But there is a problem: under our existing legal framework you can only do that if you have a warrant.”