Drone Registration: A Question of Policy vs. Process

I often find myself in debates with smart people – people I like – who don’t understand the distinction between the merits of a particular government policy and the question of whether the government has the power to enact that policy.  To pick a recent example, you may think that preventing hunters from killing bear cubs in Alaska is a great idea.  Whether the government – especially, the Executive Branch, acting without statutory authority – has the power to enact such a ban is a question that many would regard as beside the point.  Those who question the Executive’s power to protect bear cubs obviously hate bear cubs.

Based on the tenor of articles like this one in today’s Washington Post, the FAA’s drone registration rule is the Alaskan bear cub of the moment.  Stakeholders are livid at John Taylor for having the temerity to question authority.  A spokesman for AUVSI (an organization in which I have been a member), seems rather beside himself:

Why do we have restrictions? Because we don’t want a drone ingested into an aircraft engine,” said Brian Wynne, a licensed pilot and president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a leading industry group based in Arlington, Va.

Wynne said putting registration numbers on all aircraft should be seen as a basic safety requirement. But that was part of what was overturned by Taylor’s challenge.

“We have to have rules,” Wynne said.

I feel Mr. Wynne’s pain.  Really, I do.  Stakeholders who have invested so much in their drone businesses no doubt feel put upon by a regulatory regime that imposes high barriers to entry on them, while imposing very few restrictions on those who engage in the very same activity for personal pleasure.  A drone registration requirement for all seems only fair.

But, as Mr. Wynne said, “We have to have rules.” And first among those rules must be the rule of law.  Congress expressly prohibited the FAA from regulating model aircraft.  The FAA’s drone registration rule violated that unambiguous prohibition.

John Taylor was just the boy who pointed out the emperor’s lack of clothing.

D.C. Circuit Court Strikes Down Registration Rule for Non-Commercial Drones

We have previously expressed our skepticism of the FAA’s authority to require non-commercial drone operators to register their drones.  While the FAA’s registration requirement may have been well-intended, good intentions don’t overcome a clear statutory prohibition like FMRA Section 336, which expressly provides that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft…

That the FAA went ahead and did so anyway got under the skin of a lot of people, and rightfully so.  Perhaps the FAA didn’t count on the fact that at least one of those people had a license to practice law:

In a stunning David versus Goliath case, John A. Taylor, a model aircraft enthusiast and insurance lawyer, beat the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Justice in a case challenging the legality of a December 2015 FAA rule requiring model aircraft to register like manned aircraft. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FAA’s registration rule, as it applies to model aircraft, “directly violates [a] clear statutory prohibition.”

The court specifically noted that Section 336 “codified the FAA’s long-standing hands-off approach to the regulation of model aircraft.”

In short, the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act provides that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,” yet the FAA’s 2015 Registration Rule is a “rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.” Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler. The Registration Rule is unlawful as applied to model aircraft.

The FAA raised two arguments.  First, the FAA argued that the registration requirement applied to all aircraft and pre-dated the FMRA.  In other words, it was pre-existing requirement.  This was belied by the FAA’s own history of making an exception for model aircraft.  The rule was a new regulation, and therefore prohibited by Section 336.

Second, the FAA contended that the rule was consistent with the FMRA’s purpose to “improve aviation safety.”  But that would be inconsistent with the text of the statute.  Congress, the court noted, is always free to amend the statute.

In a normal world, results like this wouldn’t be stunning.  Challenging the government on a rule that clearly exceeds its statutory authority should be more like shooting fish in a barrel.  But this is the world we have as a result of a judicial doctrine known as Chevron deference – i.e., that a court will generally defer to an agency’s interpretations of statutes, as long as there is a reasonable basis for that interpretation.  This has led to unfortunate consequences, and we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Chevron doctrine.

But let’s not take anything away from John A. Taylor’s achievement.  This was a great win, for himself, for the drone community, and for individual liberty.

Is Gun Drone Teen’s Challenge to FAA Subpoena Legally Sound?

Jason Koebler has another useful and informative story on a current development in the area of drone law.  This one concerns the “gun drone” teenager, Austin Haughwout, and he and his family’s challenge to an FAA subpoena demanding, among other things, “photographs and video, receipts for the flamethrower, YouTube audience, advertising, and monetization information. . . .”

The FAA is petitioning a federal judge to enforce its subpoena, which included a subpoena for depositions in New Haven.  The Haughwout’s opening brief in response (which cites this blog in a footnote) raises two arguments: (1) the FAA exceeded its regulatory authority by defining drones as “aircraft”; and, or alternatively, (2) the subpoena is unconstitutional as applied under the Commerce Clause of Article I.

For reasons that we discussed in this post and this post in the wake of the decision of the NTSB administrative appeals court in Pirker, this looks like a steep hill to climb.  Taking the second argument first, the Supreme Court practically slammed the door shut on limits to the Commerce Clause in Gonzalez v. Raich.  As we said here, the real question these days is, where does the Commerce Clause not extend?

Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask, will the courts ever meaningfully limit the reach of the Commerce Clause? The Court did draw a line in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, but it was essentially rendered meaningless by the Court’s more memorable, alternative ruling that the Obamacare mandate could be construed as a tax.

Thus, unfortunately, the trend has been against the Haughwouts and, in any event, a court will decline to rule on a Constitutional question that can be resolved by statutory interpretation.  It would therefore take a judge of extraordinary courage to tell the FAA that is has overstepped its Constitutional bounds.

This brings us to the first question raised in the Haughwouts’ brief: Has the FAA overstepped its statutory authority by defining drones as “aircraft”?  The argument centers on the FAA’s interpretation of its “organic statute” at 49 U.S.C. §40101, and whether the FAA has overreached by defining drones as “aircraft”.  It also relies on a critique of the NTSB decision in Pirker II as having been wrongly decided.

This isn’t a bad question to raise.  Since the Pirker case settled, the question never went before an Article III court, and therefore remains unresolved.  Given that the question is to be argued at a hearing on July 6, I will not comment on the merits of this argument.

Surprisingly, we can find no discussion of FMRA Section 336, which bars the FAA from promulgating any regulation regarding model aircraft, the only exception being that nothing in Section 336 “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.”

We’re sure that the Haughwouts’ attorneys had good reasons for omitting any discussion of Section 336, but it’s certainly something that we would have considered raising.  The statute clearly evidences an intent by Congress to limit the FAA’s enforcement authority to threats to the NAS.  A battery-powered drone, being operated just above ground in a privately-owned forest, does not seem like a threat to the NAS, gun or no gun, flamethrower or no flamethrower.

Mr. Koebler correctly thinks that this might be the most important drone law case currently pending.

The story is also covered here by Ars Technica.

About that handgun-firing drone

A knucklehead in Connecticut has caused quite the media firestorm over his video of a semi-automatic handgun being fired from a small drone.  I have received some media inquiries about whether it is legal or not.  The answer is that it depends.

Based on the video, it appears that this occurred on private property, away from any buildings or people.  The FAA does not seem to have a regulation that would prohibit discharging a firearm from a drone under those circumstances.

The closest thing you will find is FAR § 91.13, which prohibits the reckless operation of an aircraft (the FAA relied on this section in the Rafael Pirker case), and § 91.15, which prohibits dropping objects from an aircraft.  But both regulations apply only where the activity poses a danger to life or property.  That does not appear to be the case, here.

The more likely resource for determining the legality of this particular drone would be state law governing the handling and discharge of firearms.  These regulations vary by state, but in general one would look to whether a firearm was discharged in a reckless manner that posed a danger to others, or in a built-up area or an area zoned for housing.  You can review Florida’s law, here.

Does this presage the weaponization of private drones?  I doubt it.  The video seems to vindicate something I wrote back in October:

[A] small drone is unlikely to be a useful weapons platform. As anyone who has fired a gun can attest, the kickback from discharging a firearm would be just as likely to send a small drone tumbling out of the sky as it would be for the drone to hit its intended target.

The video proves the point.  The operator does not have any reasonable semblance of control over the weapon, and at one point he clearly seems to be downrange of the weapon.  That’s a big no-no among gun owners.

Having said that, I could foresee someone developing an “FPV drone paint-ball” war game (patent pending).  Where that would fit with FAA regulations and state firearms law might be a topic for another post.

Commercial Drone Licensing in Great Britain

Writing at the Washington Post’s Innovations blog, Matt McFarland reviews the approach to small, commercial drone licensing in Great Britain, where the “Civil Aviation Authority — an equivalent to the FAA — has approved three companies to provide training on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that weigh less than 45 pounds.”  The training and licensing regimen is notable in that, unlike the FAA’s requirements in a number of Section 333 exemptions and in its pending rules, Britain does not require operators to hold a pilot’s license for manned aircraft.

One of the approved training companies, Sky-Futures,

sends trainees a ground school manual to gain an understanding of how airspace operates and how to read an air map. Newbies are given a month at home with the manual, but experienced manned aircraft pilots are required to spend far less time with it.

Sky-Futures then puts trainees through two days of ground school and three weeks of actual flight training in Spain. Aside from much of the summer, the British group heads to Spain for the drier conditions and clear skies. Lessons take place at an approved test site. Students learn everything from how to navigate around objects to how to operate a camera on a drone safely.

And who wouldn’t enjoy three weeks in Spain, especially when looking to escape the (mostly) crappy weather in the UK?  That might, of course, assume that you can spare the time.  Good luck monitoring your business if you’re a real estate broker.

Then there’s the other catch:  the cost is roughly $12,000.  The director of training at Sky-Futures, himself a Boeing 747 pilot, calls this a “gold-plated standard.”  Gold-plated or not, it might put the training out of reach for aspiring freelancers.

The downstream requirements are much less onerous.  Once a pilot is certified, he needs to submit an operations manual and proof of insurance.  But otherwise, the regulations are fairly minimal, and reasonably risk-based (operators of drones over 15 lbs have to notify air traffic control before flying).

We see a danger of regulatory capture, here.  Training schools like this will of course have a vested interest in lobbying for greater – but not too much – complexity.

Still, we think that this is better than nothing, and it seems far more reasonable than what is rumored to be in store from the FAA.  But three weeks of training, at a cost exceeding $10k, still seems like something that is going to create unreasonable barriers to entry for operators of small drones.

We give this regulatory framework a B+.

Drone Sense at the Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Editorial page is one of the last remaining mainstream editorial pages that still seems to have a few adults in charge.  On Sunday, it published a remarkably simple and cogent pronouncement on the state of drone regulations.  Noting the dissonance between regulations over commercial vs. recreational operators, as well as the reports of drones entering sensitive airspace, the editors have a few suggestions:

The FAA should finally release rules governing commercial drone flights shorn of the absurd requirement that operators must have hours of cockpit time in real planes. Commercial drone pilots should have adequate practice on the equipment they are actually using, and they should be up to speed on FAA rules on unmanned aircraft, air traffic control practices and how to deal with bad weather. They don’t need to know how to land a Cessna. If the FAA doesn’t make that clear, Congress should.

Meanwhile, the FAA should also find better ways to keep drones out of sensitive airspace.

The editors point to something that we have frequently suggested, that manufacturers of recreational drones be required to include built-in altitude and geo-fencing restrictions.  Indeed, the editors note that some manufacturers are already doing so.  If the FAA declines to take this common sense approach, then Congress might have to step up and mandate that it do so.

 

The FAA Should Pull Back

Responding to this week’s NTSB ruling, the author of this op-ed in today’s L.A. Times suggests that the FAA should pull back from its regulation over “hundreds of types of flying devices that are not even capable of reaching the minimal safe altitude of manned airplanes.”

Small drones are not built for lengthy interstate flights at altitudes where conventional airplanes fly, so why should a federal agency be the chief regulator of these devices? Rather than seeking to expand its regulatory jurisdiction all the way down to the ground, the FAA should advocate for itself a more limited role in a collaborative federal, state and local regulatory scheme tailored to the unique attributes of drone technologies.

The author suggests that the FAA limit itself to “aspects of drone regulation that are most appropriately implemented at the federal government level.” For example, FAA safety standards could require the incorporation of geo-fence technology “to prevent operators from flying their drones into the airspace surrounding hundreds of airports around the world.”

This calls to mind two points we have made on this blog. As we noted yesterday, Congress appears to have expressed an intent to limit the FAA’s jurisdiction to risks to the National Airspace. We think that any risk posed by small drones can be adequately addressed by regulating them as consumer products rather than as traditional aircraft. Geo-fencing and built-in height and radius limitations are among the features that could be required to be incorporated in over-the-counter drone technology.

The Meaning of Yesterday’s NTSB Ruling

All Is Not Lost

Yesterday’s ruling from the NTSB, overturning Judge Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case, caused quite the twitter storm, and practically crashed our Google news feed. So, a lot of virtual ink has already been spilled on this. But much of it has been either poorly written or flat-out wrong.

We stand by our initial take, which is that the scope of this ruling is ultimately quite narrow. We also think it stands on shaky ground, and could be vulnerable on review by an Article III court.* Here’s why.

First, the opinion was narrowly tailored to the question of whether a model aircraft falls within the FAA’s enforcement authority under 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a), which provides that “[n]o person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” The key finding was that a model aircraft is an “aircraft” under 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. Section 40102(a)(6), the NTSB concluded:

defines “aircraft” as “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.” Similarly, 14 C.F.R. § 1.1 defines “aircraft” for purposes of the FARs, including § 91.13, as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.” The definitions are clear on their face. Even if we were to accept the law judge’s characterization of respondent’s aircraft, allegedly used at altitudes up to 1,500 feet AGL for commercial purposes, as a “model aircraft,” the definitions on their face do not exclude even a “model aircraft” from the meaning of “aircraft.” Furthermore, the definitions draw no distinction between whether a device is manned or unmanned. An aircraft is “any” “device” that is “used for flight.” We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.

That sounds like a broad conclusion. It is, and it isn’t. The NTSB points out that, at the time of the original Federal Aviation Act:

so-called “drones” were largely the currency of science fiction. Congress demonstrated prescience, however, in the early definition of “aircraft”; it expressly defined the term as any airborne contrivance “now known or hereafter invented, used, or designed for navigation of or flight in the air.”

… [The FAA] may choose to exclude certain types of aircraft in a practical sense, by refraining from bringing a charge under the FARs against a model aircraft operator; Advisory Circular 91-57 implies such a practice, and the processes outlined in 14 C.F.R. §§ 11.81 – 11.103 provide a more formal means of seeking exemption. However, for the case sub judice, the plain language of § 91.13(a), as well as the definitions quoted above, does not exclude certain categories of aircraft.

Turning to whether the FAA correctly applied Section 91.13(a) to Pirker’s model aircraft, the NTSB points to the doctrine of judicial deference to agency interpretations of the statutes they are charged with enforcing. Agency interpretations will generally be accorded deference if the agency can point to a reasonable basis in the underlying statute. The NTSB concludes that, since nothing in the history of the statute or the FAA’s enforcement actions indicate a clear intent to categorically exclude model aircraft from the definition of “aircraft,” the FAA’s interpretation should be upheld as reasonable.

But the NTSB also hints that the scope of this conclusion will be constrained by practical limits on the FAA’s prosecutorial discretion. Simply put, the FAA cannot prosecute every operator of a model aircraft who does something dangerous or foolish. The decision also does not grant the FAA license to enact a wholesale prohibition on the operation of model aircraft, or even require licensing for hobbyists.

In summary, if you are an amateur hobbyist who operates a model aircraft within traditional parameters – less than 400 feet, within line of sight (precise definitions are being sorted out in the courts), and you refrain from doing anything stupid, the chances of getting a citation from the FAA are exceedingly remote.

Pirker might be able to argue that the NTSB’s ruling is inconsistent with the scope of the FMRA’s Special Rule for Model Aircraft, which we discussed here. The Special Rule contains a statutory construction provision:

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.

FMRA, Sec. 336(b) (emphasis added).

Although FMRA was enacted after Pirker’s “offending” flight, he could argue that this statutory provision shows that the FAA’s interpretation is directly at odds with Congressional intent, vis a vis model aircraft. A threat to individuals and their property, he might contend, is not a threat to the “safety of the national airspace system.” In other words, unless a model aircraft has somehow threatened the safety of the national airspace, as that has been traditionally defined, its unsafe operation should be a matter for local police authorities, not the FAA.

Such an argument would have sound Constitutional underpinnings. Congress derives its authority to regulate airspace from the Commerce Clause of Article I, which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Granted, the courts have construed this power so broadly that it is by now practically meaningless as an enumerated limitation on the federal government. But it is generally recognized that the power extends to regulation of anything that has a material impact on interstate commerce.

What constitutes an effect on interstate commerce is typically a fact-sensitive question. Hypothetically, prosecuting a model aircraft operator who buzzes old ladies on a sidewalk is not something that even remotely affects interstate commerce, whereas an operator who flies his Phantom II into the air intake of a commercial jet does affect interstate commerce.

It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Pirker takes up these questions on appeal to an Article III court.

——
* An Article III court is a court established by Congress under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The NTSB court is an administrative court and is therefor part of the Executive Branch under Article II. Article III courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from the decisions of administrative courts.

“I’m an idiot, someone stop me!”

An amateur Phantom II operator (or, perhaps we should say, former operator) did something stupid that could have hurt someone, and now laments the fact that what he was doing isn’t illegal:

The thing is, there are basically zero regulations in the U.S. preventing what I did from happening again. There is no age requirement or learner’s permit necessary to purchase a drone. There are some basic rules in place from the FAA that ban hobbyists from flying over densely populated areas or close to airports, but aside from that, if you stay under 400 feet, you’re good to go.

When it comes to commercial drone flights, on the other hand, the FAA has made them completely illegal in the US. It’s taken years to develop new rules for companies, during which time other countries have forged ahead. And now it’s saying it will miss the deadline set by Congress to get commercial drones flying over American skies in 2015.

This is completely backward. It didn’t really hit me until my own crash, but the FAA is actually focusing its regulation on the wrong group. Companies typically need to carry liability insurance on the machinery they operate. A bad crash would be terrible for a brand, something that will make them more conservative about flights. The people with the least to lose are the casual hobbyist like me.

We think that the writer has a valid point about insurance concerns driving the commercial drone sector. But his call for the nanny state to stop him from acting foolishly is, well, silly. First, his argument assumes that the woman on the bicycle would have been left without a remedy had his careless behavior injured her or her child.

His in-laws probably have homeowner’s insurance. It might have adversely impacted his marriage, but any decent plaintiffs’ lawyer would have immediately looked into that.

And perhaps the writer has his own umbrella policy. He doesn’t say.

But the larger question is, at what point do we call on government to restrict the liberty of others, simply because some people act irresponsibly? We license car drivers, and have laws against reckless driving and drunk driving, but that doesn’t stop cars from being deadly missiles (much more dangerous than a 5-pound drone) in the hands of the wrong person. Requiring licenses for model aircraft operators seems grossly disproportionate to the risk involved.

If we are to remain a free and open society, on some level we have to still count on the virtue of individual citizens as the primary keeper of civic peace. Translated into contemporary parlance:

Don’t be an idiot, and we’ll all get along, just fine.