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These 8 states are the perfect sandbox for drones

Looking for a place to start a new business where you’ll get support from the government and other official groups? There are eight U.S. states in particular that are a sort of ultimate drone sandbox. That means the states have designated places to test new technologies — usually under liberal rules.

Those eight states are:

  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma

Those states were the only to receive a perfect 10/10 score in a drone state scorecard study done by The Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The team sought to create a rankings list of the most drone-friendly states based on six factors that included drone-friendly laws, job openings and task forces. But perhaps the most interesting metric that The Mercatus Center looked at was the simple “sandbox” metric.

“The term sandbox in technology policy refers to a designated place, either geographical or digital, where new technologies can be tested under liberal rules for a predetermined duration,” according to Mercatus. “The policy goal is to stimulate a new industry or service by providing innovators and regulators a place to watch and learn about the new technology without a full-scale launch to the public.”

In its quest to find the ultimate drone sandbox, Mercatus considered three components:

  1. Designated airspace and facilities
  2. Prominent, open invitation to commercial drone services companies to use
    the airspace and facilities
  3. Affiliation with state transportation or economic development officials

While laws are often impacted by lawmakers, and job openings can quickly change depending on, perhaps, a well-timed investment round, sandbox is among the best metrics to look at when determining where to launch a new startup or expand, as it means a lot of influential people in that state are willing to give you support.

And note that sandboxes are different from the myriad of pilot programs throughout the nation. Pilot programs aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they are typically initiated by a single drone services company, are of short duration, and are limited to that company solely.

In contrast, a truly great sandbox makes airspace access more widely available and indefinite, which allows many early stage companies to test their technology and show proof of concept to investors and regulators.

“This factor requires state affiliation, because a sandbox grows the knowledge and competence of state and local transportation and economic development officials in the new area of drone commerce,” according to the Mercatus report.

Which states have the best drone sandboxes?

Among the best drone sandboxes you’ll find are in Oklahoma, where the Choctaw Nation has dedicated more than 1,000 square miles of tribal land as a 25-mile long aerial corridor to test drone services, manufacturing and economic development. Most of that comes out of a 2021 partnership between the FAA and the Native American indigenous tribe to study how drones can best transport cargo, including parcels, at lower altitudes. The FAA partnership is set to last at least three years under a Memorandum of Understanding, and will enable the FAA’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center (MMAC) to work with the Choctaw Nation to study human factors, supply chain management and air traffic control.

The Choctaw Nation is also one of eight active pilot sites participating in the FAA’s BEYOND program, which launched in October 2020, bringing in private-industry testing and data to help better understand drones.

Photo courtesy of Choctaw Nation.

Another notable standout is New York, where state officials have designated a 50-mile-long corridor in a rural area for drone testing. The state also famously holds its annual GENIUS NY accelerator competition, which has a $3 million prize pool for startups, including $1 million for the grand prize winner.  New York is also the site of the UTM Pilot Program Phase 2, and has been the site of other drone testing projects including drone parachutes.

Ohio and Maryland got sandbox points because officials have repurposed existing small airports for drones. Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center and Springfield–Beckley Municipal Airport offer airspace access to drone companies, are affiliated with the state transportation department, and have a prominent, open invitation to drone companies to test their services. Over in Maryland, there’s a dedicated drone center at Salisbury Regional Airport that offers airspace access to drone companies and is affiliated with the state transportation department.

About the Mercatus State Scorecard

Mercatus in summer 2022 realized its drone state scorecard that rated every U.S. state 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. While sandbox was a pretty small factor in the Mercatus scorecard, comprising just 10% of the overall score, it’s an important metric. The better the sandbox, the more likely the state can allow companies to test their projects — and to show it works not just to regulators, but investors too.

Here were the entire results of the Mercatus state scorecard:

Drone state scorecard

To see how every state fared on all six major variables, download the data from the Mercatus master spreadsheet here. You can read more about the whole report here.

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