Why the FAA’s Drone Registration Requirements Are ILLEGAL


This article lays out an in-depth discussion as to the three big reasons why the FAA’s FAR Part 48 drone registration regulations are illegal and should be struck down by a court. The registration regulations are currently being challenged in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by John Taylor and I am assisting him with the lawsuit.

 

Key Point of the Rule:

Persons owning small unmanned aircraft, whether intended to be used as model aircraft or as other than model aircraft, are required to register those aircraft with the FAA[.]” “This rule applies to all owners of small unmanned aircraft which weigh more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds on takeoff.” It goes into effect Dec 21, 2015. If you do not comply, you could face civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties of $250,000[1] and/or imprisonment up to 3 years.[2]

 

While the electronic means of registration seems great and would be a wonderful thing for my commercial drone clients, the issue is NOT with the proposed regulations but (1) the apparent direct violation of Section 336 of the FMRA, (2) the improper use of the “good cause” bypass exception to the Administrative Procedures Act, and (3) the lack of statutory authority.

 

 

1. The Violation of Section 336

Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 says:

IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft[.]” The key word here is “any” and the major take away is that it prevents the promulgation of new rules or regulations, not the using of already existing regulations (i.e. Part 47 and § 91.203).The FAA believes that model aircraft operators are now subject to 91.203 which requires the drone to be registered prior to operation in the national airspace.

 

FAA responded to the Section 336 prohibition allegation in the registration rule document:

The FAA disagrees with the comments asserting that the registration of model aircraft is prohibited by section 336 of Public Law 112-95. While section 336 bars the FAA from promulgating new rules or regulations that apply only to model aircraft, the prohibition against future rulemaking is not a complete bar on rulemaking and does not exempt model aircraft from complying with existing statutory and regulatory requirements. As previously addressed, Public Law 112-95 identifies model aircraft as aircraft and as such, the existing statutory aircraft registration requirements implemented by part 47 apply.

 

This action simply provides a burden-relieving alternative that sUAS owners may use for aircraft registration. Model aircraft operated under section 336 as well as other small unmanned aircraft are not required to use the provisions of part 48. Owners of such aircraft have the option to comply with the existing requirements in part 47 that govern aircraft registration or may opt to use the new streamlined, web-based system in part 48.”’[3]

Alternative or a New Regulation?

If this is a “burden-relieving alternative[,]” why does the rule seeks to amend the non-alternative current rules in Part 1, § 45.1, § 47.2, § 47.3, § 47.7, § 91.203, § 375.11, and § 375.38? This rule is a new rule coupled with multiple regulations being amended so as to harmonize the new rule in Part 48.

 

One key point is that this is being codified in Part 48 of the Code of Federal Regulations which brings us squarely back to the issue of the prohibition on the creation of rules or regulations.

What Does Section 336 Actually Prohibit?

If it is “not a complete bar on rulemaking[.]” what is it a bar actually on? It has to be a bar on something and it would be completely ludicrous to interpret it as a bar on nothing. The FAA’s interpretation is that it is a bar on “some” rulemaking, just not “any.” The scope of “some” is completely unclear.

“Any” = “Some?”

Context is king. “Statutory construction . . . is a holistic endeavor. A provision that may seem ambiguous in isolation is often clarified by the remainder of the statutory scheme — because the same terminology is used elsewhere in a context that makes its meaning clear, or because only one of the permissible meanings produces a substantive effect that is compatible with the rest of the law.[4] We must not seek the FAA’s interpretation of this statute, but Congress’ meaning of the FMRA.

 

Let’s look at the word “any” used elsewhere in Sections 331-336 of the FMRA and replace “any” with the FAA’s interpretation of “some” and see what happens.

“[E]nsure that any [some] civil unmanned aircraft system includes a sense and avoid capability[,]”[5]

“[I]ncorporation of the plan into the annual NextGen Implementation Plan document (or any [some] successor document) of the Federal Aviation Administration.”[6]

IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any [some] other requirement of this subtitle, and not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall determine if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system before completion of the plan and rulemaking required by section 332 of this Act or the guidance required by section 334 of this Act.”[7]

“[W]hich types of unmanned aircraft systems, if any [some], as a result of their size, weight, speed, operational capability, proximity to airports and populated areas, and operation within visual line of sight do not create a hazard to users of the national airspace system or the public or pose a threat to national security[,]”[8]

“[O]utside of 5 statute miles from any [some] airport, heliport, seaplane base, spaceport, or other location with aviation activities.”[9]

IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any [some] other provision of law relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any [some] rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft,”[10]

“[T]he aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any [some] manned aircraft[.]”[11]

 

Using the redefined “any” causes havoc on the reading of the text. The context of all those sections using “any” used it just as if they would have used the word “all.”

 

Though not as contextually persuasive as Sections 331-336, 14 CFR § 1.3 Rules of Construction differs from the FAA’s interpretation, ‘“a person may not * * *” mean[s] that no person is required, authorized, or permitted to do the act prescribed[.]”’ Why did I bring up § 1.3? Because that rule of construction applies to 91.203 which is going to be the regulation cited against individuals flying their drones unregistered, “no person may operate a civil aircraft unless it has within it the following: The FAA’s interpretation of Section 336 “may not promulgate any[,]” meaning some rules or regulations, is different than their interpretation of 91.203 “no person may[,]” meaning all persons, which is currently being used against one individual, Skypan, and will be used against any future individuals who choose to not register their drone prior to operation.

 

Does Any Mean Any Any Time?

The Second Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has said:

As the Supreme Court has frequently observed, use of the word “any” in statutory text generally indicates Congress’s intent to sweep broadly to reach all varieties of the item referenced. See, e.g., United States v. Gonzales, 520 U.S. 1, 5, 117 S.Ct. 1032, 137 L.Ed.2d 132 (1997) (quoting Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 97 (1976) in concluding that, ‘[r]ead naturally, the word `any’ has an expansive meaning, that is, `one or some indiscriminately of whatever kind'”); accord HUD v. Rucker, 535 U.S. 125, 131, 122 S.Ct. 1230, 152 L.Ed.2d 258 (2002) (same); Ruggiero v. County of Orange, 467 F.3d 170, 175 (2d Cir.2006) (noting that “Congress made [the phrase at issue] even broader when it chose the expansive word `any’ to precede the list” (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Court most recently applied this principle in interpreting the phrase “`any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical . . . substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air'” in the Clean Air Act. Massachusetts v. EPA, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1438, 1460, 167 L.Ed.2d 248 (2007) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 7602(g)) (ellipsis and emphases in original). It concluded that “[o]n its face,” the quoted language “embraces all airborne compounds of whatever stripe, and underscores that intent through the repeated use of the word `any.[12]

 

The United States Supreme Court has said:

‘[A]ny’ can and does mean different things depending upon the setting. Compare, e. g., United States v. Gonzales, 520 U. S. 1, 5 (1997) (suggesting an expansive meaning of the term “`any other term of imprisonment'” to include state as well as federal sentences), with Raygor v. Regents of Univ. of Minn., 534 U. S. 533, 542-546 (2002) (implying a narrow interpretation of the phrase ‘any claim asserted’ so as to exclude certain claims dismissed on Eleventh Amendment grounds). To get at Congress’s understanding, what is needed is a broader frame of reference, and in this litigation it helps if we ask how Congress could have envisioned the . . . clause actually working. . . . See, e. g., New Jersey Realty Title Ins. Co. v. Division of Tax Appeals of N. J., 338 U. S. 665, 673 (1950) (enquiring into ‘the practical operation and effect’ of a state tax on federal bonds).[13]

 

Contexts indicates that Congress practically intended that model aircraft would be free from the creation of rules or regulations. This is evidenced by sub-section (b) which says, “STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.”[14] The only thing in all of Section 336 that could even be read to limit the FAA is the language “may not promulgate[.]”

 

Buttressing that, sub-section (c) defines “model aircraft” more narrowly than the definition of unmanned aircraft in Section 331 which indicates that it is a “special” sub-classification of the broad classification of unmanned aircraft. This all points to Congress intending to mean any any time it is used in Section 331-336.

 

In conclusion, the United States Supreme Court, while acknowledging that any could mean different things, it is generally to be taken as a broad sweep of the category, unless context indicates otherwise. Furthermore, context indicates that sub-section (b) and (c) both look at (a) as providing something special that unmanned aircraft (non-model and public aircraft) do not get.

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Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.