(Photo by Sukie Kim)
For consecutive nights, John Taylor had worked on little sleep, but after the second night, he was ready.
On the morning of Dec. 24, 2015, Taylor walked into the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit prepared to do what he thought other lawyers were also preparing to do. He went to the clerk’s office, a document in his hand, only to be told he had chosen the incorrect font size.
It turns out you have to sue the Federal Aviation Administration in 14-point font.
Taylor, bespectacled with a bushy white mustache, has spent many of his 30 years as a lawyer in obscurity. That was before the FAA announced in December 2015 that all model aircraft pilots would need to sign up with an online database in order to fly. That meant that anyone with an unmanned aerial vehicle weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds — whether that UAV was a more traditional, fixed-wing craft or the rotored quadcopters that have proliferated so widely over the last few years — was required to register with their names, home addresses and email addresses. That included hobbyists, or people who just flew for fun like Taylor.
"It pissed me off on a very sort of visceral level."
And that’s when things changed.
Following the news from his home just outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s Montgomery County, Taylor thought the new regulation was blatantly illegal. “I wanted to be able to fly my drone and I didn’t want to have to register. It pissed me off on a very sort of visceral level,” he says.
The registry came online on Dec. 21, 2015, and the FAA said it would serve to educate the hundreds of thousands of new drone owners how to safely fly. To date, more than 600,000 people have registered.
“I started thinking, it’s not going to accomplish what they say they’re going to accomplish — the safety benefits are not there,” says Taylor. “How do you stop people from flying irresponsibly?”
Days later, Taylor walked into the U.S. Court of Appeals and sued the FAA with the aim of getting the registration requirement thrown out and the online registry taken down. After being told he needed to fix the font, a requirement of that specific court, he hightailed it on the Metro back to his D.C. office, made the edit, re-printed out his lawsuit and successfully filed it. This year, the suit that hobby drone pilots and the broader industry have followed should finally come to a head. His lawsuit has been scheduled for oral argument on March 14. What happens then is anyone’s guess, but Taylor thinks — and hopes — he will win.
“When there’s a lot of people looking at what you’re doing and hoping you’ll win, it’s certainly a tremendous amount of responsibility,” he says.
Since filing, Taylor’s lawsuit has become a main passion project, one for which he takes no money, draws no salary and has already spent a couple thousand bucks on. It’s become as much of a hobby for him as flying drones.
As a boy, he had a “passing interest” in radio-control planes, he says. Flying drones and model aircraft only became a recreational hobby for him in the last two years. With his lawsuit pending, Taylor’s reluctant to go into much detail about the drones he has or take a reporter out flying — after all, he hasn’t registered with the FAA, which opens him up to civil and criminal penalties, with fines ranging from $27,500 to $250,000. But the first drone he bought is the same one he handed this reporter when we met at a barbecue joint in Rockville in early January: a Cheerson CX-10 mini-drone, one that fits easily in the palm of a hand.
Taylor, who got into drones in 2015, especially likes building them.
“I was flying on a regular basis,” he says. “I had half a dozen drones that I’d built. But at the time I realized the hobby might have a limited lifespan because of a concern about regulating it.”
Yet Taylor, in some ways, seems an unlikely candidate to have sued the FAA over a drone registry. He’s not an aviation lawyer and was an under-the-radar hobbyist before the lawsuit. For the last 12 years, the 55-year-old Taylor has been senior counsel at a major insurance company. Before that, he worked at several firms as a litigator, handling criminal defense work, domestic relations and commercial construction claims. Drivers might notice his BMW coupe in a fleeting moment on the highway, but nothing about his demeanor draws unwarranted attention. But after he filed his lawsuit, people started taking note.
“I got more people contacting me than I could keep track of,” Taylor says. “Hobbyists were calling. Attorney-hobbyists were calling. A local TV station two blocks from my office called. It was a weird experience, suddenly going from having an ordinary life to having people calling you every hour.”
Of course, the night of Dec. 23, 2015, Taylor didn’t predict the attention he’d receive from one lawsuit. That night, the only other person who knew what he intended to do the next morning was Jonathan Rupprecht, a Florida drone lawyer and FAA-certified commercial pilot.
Before Taylor even entertained the thought of filing a suit, Rupprecht wrote online about his misgivings regarding the registry — he stated outright, in capital letters in the headline, that the FAA’s registry is “ILLEGAL.” Taylor had read the article and called him up two days before Christmas while Rupprecht was in the middle of a jog. Then the two spent a sleepless night on the phone, with Rupprecht helping prepare the petition for review Taylor ultimately filed the morning of Christmas Eve.
“I think I passed out somewhere around 3 a.m., and then it was daylight,” Rupprecht recalls.
Taylor’s lawsuit could be seen as a strike against increasing drone regulation that has become a conundrum for model aircraft enthusiasts.
“In the past things have been really centered around pilots, but the question I get all the time from users is, ‘Where can I fly? And what’s illegal, and what’s not?’” says Christopher Vo, president of the D.C. Area Drone User Group and the person responsible for the Drone Legal Fund, which was set up (and reported on previously by Technical.ly DC) to cover the various costs of Taylor’s lawsuit.
Loose guidelines have traditionally governed the flights of model airplane pilots. But over the last few years, drones have proliferated. The Consumer Technology Association predicted more than one million drones would be purchased in 2016. And drones, those multirotored flying copters, are being used for more than just casual flying. (In November, a Reno-based company used them to deliver Slurpees and other items from 7-Eleven.) As applications for drones took off, the FAA took a greater interest in establishing rules.
A rush to regulate.
The FAA’s push for regulations came at the behest of U.S. Congress. Passed in 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act mandated the federal agency set up rules governing commercial drone flights by 2015. That was achieved in August 2016 with the final adoption of Part 107, a set of rules operators must follow to legally make money by flying drones.
The online registry, on which both commercial and recreational pilots sign up, was a separate matter. The FAA already has on the books a registration requirement for manned aircraft to ensure the safety of the skies. In setting up the registry, what the FAA was saying is that model aircraft and drones are the same as the Boeing 737 that makes inter-city flights, and therefore must also be registered. (That contention, that model aircraft are the same as aircraft, is litigation currently pending.)
“The agency’s registration requirement for unmanned aircraft is primarily aimed at the thousands of drone hobbyists who have little or no experience with the U.S. aviation system,” the FAA told Technical.ly D.C. in a statement. “The FAA sees registration as an excellent way to give them a sense of responsibility and accountability for their actions, and to make them feel they are part of the aviation community.”
But one particular section of the 2012 act, Section 336, explicitly stated that the FAA could not “promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft … if the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use.” It’s that section that got Taylor thinking, and it, he says, is the “strongest, clearest” argument against the online registry. Taylor’s argument, boiled down, is that Section 336 prohibited such regulations. Therefore, Taylor says, the registry is illegal.
“The FAA is basically saying that they already had a similar requirement on the books, applied to traditional aircraft, so it was OK to issue another regulation,” says Taylor. “That argument really doesn’t make any sense, and I think the court will tell them as much.”
For Taylor, his legal saga has altered his life in small, subtle ways.
He won’t go the way of Rupprecht or other lawyers who specialize in drone law (“I’ve got a career. I don’t need that,” he says). He has put more time into this case than he originally intended (“It became sort of addicting.”). And grabbing the spotlight, if only briefly, was a change, and something he shies away from. “I certainly didn’t want to send the message, ‘Stand back, boys, I’ve got this.’”
But perhaps Taylor’s decades as an attorney made him the ideal person for taking up this particular mantle. It’s evident in speaking with him that poring over the law has given him an appreciation for what people, and institutions, supposedly can and cannot do. Nothing is ever just words on a page — or a registration form on a website.
“Though it’s a small tyranny in the scheme of things, I think it’s worth fighting, if only on principle,” says Taylor. “Even if I lose the case, the FAA now realizes they can’t run roughshod over the hobby or people will challenge them. I believe that, in itself, is a significant victory.”