This post was authored by Elizabeth Marazzo, OneBeacon Risk Control Technology Specialist.
Adoption of drones–or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)–has expanded across industries and recreationally in recent years. This proliferation has necessitated FAA regulations for public safety. However, these regulations are seen as a hurdle by drone owners and operators because of the mandated restrictions. Manufacturers also claim it has hindered market growth. The most prevalent of these restrictions is known as the “line of sight rule” which requires the operator to keep the drone within eyesight at all times–and obviously removes the potential delivery space application.
Recreational Drone Registration
Drone operators have proactively voiced their concerns over these various rules. A recently litigated restriction was the hobby drone registration. This rule obligates any owner of a small UAS who had operated an unmanned aircraft prior to December 21, 2015 to register their device; anyone who purchased after December 21, 2015 must register before their first flight. This ruling is intended to educate users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly. However, in May 2017, “a U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled recently that the FAA cannot require unmanned aircraft system (UAS) hobbyists to register their drones under a December 2015 rule.” 
Aircraft or Model Aircraft?
The act also says “…may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.” The question then became: are small UAS deemed model aircraft or aircraft?
The December 2015 requirement mandated FAA registration of hobby drones weighing between 0.55 lbs. and 55 lbs. However, Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations says commercial drones in that weight category are considered aircraft. Hobby drones usually weigh no more than 3 lbs. Petitioners argued that there should be a distinction between hobby versus commercial drones, and that the registry requirement did not have supporting data validating that hobby drones weighing 3 lbs. are unsafe.
The group further intimated that the 2015 Registration Rule was a knee-jerk reaction assuming people would buy drones and run them into airplanes, which did not happen. Hobbyists typically operate drones in open fields where there is little chance of creating unwanted incidents. And since registration is not required when purchasing a drone, it’s up to the hobbyist to register their device. One can assume that those with malicious intent are unlikely to register their drones.
The Other Side of the Story
In defense of this regulation, an incident occurred in Nevada where an operator flew a drone within five miles of an airport without permission and then flew away before a police helicopter could track it. This is an example of a situation that could warrant the implementation of FAA guidelines.
The Helicopter Association International (HAI) is supportive of this ruling, as they routinely operate at the same low altitudes as drones. They are deeply concerned about their members’ ability to fly safely in airspace where pilots could encounter a drone.
The biggest exposure is that hobbyists may not know they are operating within the national airspace system or close to a manned aircraft, which could lead to some potential problems. The drone registration has enabled the FAA to educate operators about the hazards and the impact of careless drone operation.
Recreational Drone Pilot License
At this time, licenses are not required, except for operators of commercial drones, who have to obtain a remote pilot certificate.
At this time, the FAA has three options: accept the ruling, ask for another hearing by a full panel of the Appeals Court’s 17 judges or asking Congress to change the law. They are carefully reviewing this decision and considering their options. If drones are not registered there won’t be an efficient way to track hobby drones that pose a danger to a manned aircraft or the public.
For more information and up-to-date FAA regulations click here.