The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals slapped down part of a Federal Aviation Administration rule that required operators of drones and model planes to register with the agency.
The federal appeals court said the agency exceeded its authority when it said the rule extended to recreational drone operators.
"The FAA's 2015 Registration Rule, which applies to model aircraft, directly violates [a] clear statutory prohibition. We therefore grant [the] petition and vacate the Registration Rule to the extent it applies to model aircraft," a three-judge panel ruled Friday.
The rule was part of a broader effort by the government to establish laws and regulations governing the use of unmanned aerial systems, which are more commonly called drones. The 2015 rulemaking was done in response to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which Congress passed in 2012.
The agency indicated that it might appeal the order.
"We are carefully reviewing the U.S. Court of Appeals decision as it relates to drone registrations. The FAA put registration and operational regulations in place to ensure that drones are operated in a way that is safe and does not pose security and privacy threats. We are in the process of considering our options and response to the decision," the FAA said in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
Business groups involved in the commercial use of drones had supported the FAA's rulemaking. They argued that the agency needed to have broad regulatory authority.
"The viability and growth of the UAS industry is contingent on the safe and responsible integration of UAS technology. This is only possible if all operators – commercial and recreational alike – understand their responsibilities and remain informed of the evolving standards around UAS technology. Today's ruling generates uncertainty by eliminating a tool developed to maintain accountability and enable streamlined communication between the FAA and recreational UAS operators," said the Small UAV Coalition, a group whose members include Amazon, Google, Intel and Walmart.
The FAA's rule said, among other things, that model aircraft owners who do not register face civil or criminal monetary penalties and up to three years' imprisonment. John Taylor, a Washington-area drone enthusiast, filed suit against the government.
The court noted that Congress had explicitly prohibited the FAA from creating regulations for model aircrafts. The agency nevertheless argued that "pre-existing statutory provisions" overrode that part of the 2012 law. The judges rejected that argument Friday.
"The FAA Modernization and Reform Act prohibits the FAA from promulgating 'any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.' The Registration Rule is a rule regarding model aircraft. Therefore, the Registration Rule is unlawful to the extent that it applies to model aircraft," the judges wrote.