Some states are more prepared for a drone-filled future than others. At least so says The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a non-profit research, education, and outreach think tank that leans libertarian and tends to promote more free-market-oriented ideas in its studies. The think tank put together a drone state scorecard to find the most drone-friendly states.
States were rated on six factors, which had different points assigned to them to give more weighting to more important factors. The points totaled 100, so a state that got a perfect score in each category would then have a perfect overall score of 100. Here were the six factors and the maximum points assigned to them:
- Airspace lease law (laws that allow state or local authorities to lease airspace above public roads and private property): 30 points
- Avigation easement law (laws that allow drone flights as long as they are high enough to avoid being a noise nuisance to landowners and passersby): 25 points
- Task force or program offices: 20 points
- Laws vesting landowners with air rights (laws that clarify property rights, thereby reducing litigation risk for drone operators and homeowners alike): 10 points
- Sandbox: 10 points
- Jobs estimate: 5 points
Most of the metrics rate states based on laws (or lack of laws), while also recognizing those that have set up program offices designed to support drones.
That fifth point, sandbox, is not as obvious. Mercatus uses sandbox to refer to states that have designated places to test new technologies under liberal rules for a predetermined duration. In theory, this would allow companies to test their projects — and to show it works not just to regulators, but investors too.
Jobs estimate was based on current job openings in that state per resident, based on ZipRecruiter data.
Drone state scorecard: Which state is the most drone-friendly?
So with that, here were the results of the Mercatus state scorecard:
Oklahoma came in as the most drone-friendly state, with a final score of 74 out of 100. The state ranked highly thanks to airspace lease laws, which would make it relatively easy for state and local officials to make drone highways, like the one currently in New York (unsurprisingly this helped New York rank 10/10 in the sandbox category, though the state lost major points for its lack of avigation easement). Oklahoma also ranked far higher than NY thanks to other factors like giving air rights to landowners.
The state also has its own drone program office within the Oklahoma Department of Transportation called the Oklahoma Advanced Mobility Pilot Program, as well as a project with Oklahoma’s Choctaw Nation that offers airspace access to drone companies. It’s essentially an open invitation to drone companies to test their hardware and services. Additionally, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is one of just eight participants in the FAA’s BEYOND program, which pairs public and private entities to perform industry testing and data to help better understand drones.
North Dakota and Arkansas tied for position two with a score of 70 out of 100. All three of those states tend to lean conservative, and voted for the Republican party in the 2020 election. Like Oklahoma, North Dakota is also a participant in the BEYOND program, and the state’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site is active in BVLOS testing. While Arkansas didn’t rank highly in the sandbox category and it doesn’t have a statewide drone task force, its laws make it easy to operate drones.
The three worst states, all with a pitiful score of one, were Mississippi, Rhode Island and Nebraska.
How does the FAA fit in?
It should come as no surprise that the Federal Aviation Administration has massive authority over drones. Even a state deemed “unfriendly” to drones is large subject to federal rules. In fact, state and local governments are not permitted to regulate any type of aircraft operations, such as flight paths or altitudes, or the navigable airspace. Powers given to the FAA by Congress give it exclusive authority to regulate pretty much all things aviation, including safety, the efficiency of the navigable airspace, and air traffic control.
But states can still have some impact on their own drone industries, hence the Mercatus study. They have authority on the ground, so they can regulate takeoff and landing, and also have power over other land-based laws. In fact, more than one-third of states currently allow state or local authorities to lease airspace above public roads and private property, , vest property owners with air rights, and establish avigation easements.
States can also support local job growth.
About the Mercatus drone study
Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Brent Skorup, whose research areas include transportation technology, telecommunications, aviation, and wireless policy, led the project. Skorup himself is pretty involved in state-specific drone rule making. He serves on the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, the Texas DOT’s Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, and the Texas DOT’s Urban Air Mobility Advisory Committee, and is a member of the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project. By the way, Texas came in 12th in the Mercatus rankings.
If you’re a data nerd, check this out: Mercatus made its master spreadsheet publicly downloadable, so you can play with the weighting of the rankings and variables to see how changes might impact a state ranking.
Mercatus says that having clear laws might be a good thing, as it can allow states to facilitate future commercial drone operations in low-altitude airspace. Meanwhile Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would be freed up to develop national drone policies.
“Creating a clear and coherent framework at the state and local level, such as a system of drone highways, will make parcel delivery faster, improve distribution of medical supplies, and create jobs in the technology and logistics sectors,” Skorup said.