A US federal appeals judge said drones are no different than radio-controlled planes

Just like this one.
Just like this one.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy
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It’s about to get $5 cheaper to become a hobby drone pilot.

The US court of appeals in Washington, DC, ruled today that the Federal Aviation Administration’s rule forcing registration of drones under 55 lbs is unlawful. In the eyes of the court, it seems these are really just model aircraft.

The FAA announced in December 2015 that it would require every person who wished to fly a drone in US airspace pay $5 and provide their full name, address and email. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $27,500, as well as potential criminal penalties of up to three years in prison, and additional fines of up to $250,000. Some drone owners did not agree that the government should put in place such a registration system, and sued the FAA.

John Taylor, a lawyer and drone hobbyist based in the DC area brought the lawsuit against the FAA. His argument hinged on a clause in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by president Barack Obama in 2012, which in part provided the impetus for the FAA’s recent initiatives to regulate commercial drone operations and create an air-traffic management system for autonomous drones.

Section 336 of that act says that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,” essentially suggesting that whatever new rules it created couldn’t affect radio-controlled hobby aircraft. This meant that model aircraft were exempt from the FAA’s hobby-drone registration push, a push the FAA maintained even though, ostensibly, a drone controlled by a smartphone or radio controller doesn’t act much differently from a model helicopter controlled by a radio controller. It seems that the appellate court agreed with this logic, and ruled that if model aircraft are exempt from registration regulations, small hobby drones should be as well.

Jonathan Rupprecht, a lawyer working with Taylor, considers the ruling a victory for the semantics of what a hobby drone is. “This is vindicating the right that Congress gave to model aircrafters,” he said. “This is a big ruling,” he added, saying that this is the highest US court to have ruled on hobby drone use.

He argued previously that the way that the FAA went about setting up a registration system for drones was haphazard, regardless of its legality. The FAA’s regulation required drone flyers to write their registration number on their drone in a thick marker, in case something happened to it and authorities needed to find its pilot. But there was a bit of a flaw in that logic, Rupprecht argued: “If you’re going to do something stupid, you’re going to scrub that Sharpie off.”

Today’s ruling does not mean, however, that drone operators have been given free rein to fly irresponsibly or dangerously—Rupprecht pointed out that the FAA Modernization and Reform Act also includes a section stating that the FAA can still “pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.”

“The FAA’s innovative approach to drone registration was very reasonable, and registration provides for accountability and education to drone pilots,” Brendan Schulman, the vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI, the world’s largest hobby drone manufacturer, told Quartz in a statement. “I expect the legal issue that impedes this program will be addressed by cooperative work between the industry and policymakers.”

The FAA provided the following statement, but did not confirm whether it would appeal today’s ruling, theoretically sending the case to the Supreme Court:

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 also declined to say whether it plans to return the $5 that nearly 700,000 people have paid to the administration to register their drones—that’s roughly $3.5 million.