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Americans no longer have to register non-commercial drones with the FAA

By April Glaser, Recode

If you buy a new drone in the U.S. to fly non-commercially, you no longer have to register your drone with the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a decision issued today by a federal court in Washington. D.C.

The court ruled that the FAA’s drone registration rules, which have been in place since 2015, were in violation of a law passed by Congress in 2012. That law, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, prohibited the FAA from passing any rules on the operation of model aircraft — in other words, rules that restrict how non-commercial hobbyist drone operators fly.

Now, if a person buys a new drone to fly for fun, they no longer have to register that aircraft with the FAA. But if flying for commercial purposes, drone buyers still need to register.

The lawsuit was won by John Taylor, a model aircraft enthusiast, who brought the case against the FAA in January 2016.

Since first opening the FAA’s registration system in December 2015, more than 820,000 people have registered to fly drones.

Perhaps surprisingly, the drone industry isn’t thrilled with the court’s order to end registration.

“The FAA's innovative approach to drone registration was very reasonable, and registration provides for accountability and education to drone pilots,” DJI’s head of policy Brendan Schulman said in an email to Recode. “I expect the legal issue that impedes this program will be addressed by cooperative work between the industry and policymakers.”

There’s a chance the FAA will appeal the decision, but others suspect Congress may step in and clarify the FAA’s authority to pass laws about the use of model aircraft.

The law the court said the FAA violated is set to expire in September, and Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota), chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has said that he plans to introduce a bill in the next couple of weeks to address FAA modernization, Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, told Recode.

“The goal of the registration rule was to assist law enforcement and others to enforce the law against unauthorized drone flights, and to educate hobbyists that a drone is not just a toy and operators need to follow the rules,” said Lisa Ellman, an attorney and specialist on the drone regulation with the law firm Hogan Lovells. “These are worthy goals, so if this ruling stands it wouldn't surprise us to see a legislative response here."

In March, the FAA head Michael Huerta said that one of the next set of problems it plans to tackle for drone regulations will be to craft a way for unmanned aircraft to be remotely identified, which will help law enforcement know who is flying a drone, even if the pilot isn’t visible.

While the FAA can continue with its research — which will presumably be used to inform future drone policy decisions — all new rules on how hobbyist drone owners are allowed to fly will have to wait for clarification about the FAA’s authority to regulate.

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