Not every drone-related law passed in Florida has been welcome by the drone industry. And in fact, many have not been welcome. But there’s one that some drone delivery companies in particular are lauding — and it’s set to go into effect on July 1. Florida SB 1068 and its House companion, HB 1071, dig into the issue of building drone ports. More specifically, it is expected to make construction of drone ports throughout Florida a lot easier.
What to know about Florida SB 1068 and HB 1071
The Florida legislature passed a bill in April that is set to ease restrictions on delivery drones, in theory better supporting the local drone delivery industry. In short, construction of drone ports throughout the state is easier — and a lot of red tape around things like drone ports having to adhere to certain fire codes have been removed.
The legislation (SB 1068 and its House companion, HB 1071) was sponsored by Senators Jay Collins and Jim Boyd, as well as was sponsored by Representatives Wyman Duggan and Spencer Roach, all four of whom are Republicans. SB 1068 received unanimous support from both houses, passing in April 2023.
“The State of Florida recognizes the immense benefits drone deliveries will bring to the citizens of this great state,” Senator Collins said. ” Retailers and companies across the state are already implementing this game-changing technology, and drones will only play an increasing role in achieving customer satisfaction and providing last-mile delivery solutions.”
The bill first defines a “drone port” as a standalone building with some specific, maximum size requirements (no more than 1,500 square feet in area or 36 feet in height). It also establishes that drone ports are not located in residential areas, and are used for storage, launch, landing, and observation of drones, among a few other stipulations (such as adhering to much of Florida Building Code). Yet even still, the bill also makes drone ports exempt from certain fire safety mandates, which Representative Roach has said could save companies more than $1 million per structure.
And from there, the bill prohibits local governments from doing much in the way of prohibiting a company from setting up a drone port, such as withholding development permits, tax receipts necessary for companies to do business or “other use approval” from drone delivery service companies for noncompliance with most local regulations.
Though, there are still a few ways that local governments might be able to hold back drone port construction, such as that counties and cities may still enforce minimum setbacks and landscaping regulations that are “generally applicable to permitted uses in the drone port site’s zoning district.”
“Florida continues to solidify its reputation as a forward-thinking, pro-business state,” Duggan said. “Cultivating a regulatory environment that enables safe and efficient drone deliveries very much aligns with the state’s determination to maintain its business-friendly reputation.”
In short, any delivery drone company will likely be able to very easily get a business license.
What does SB 1068 mean for drone delivery companies?
The bill, SB 1068, is being viewed as a good thing among drone delivery companies, who say this will ease delivery drone restrictions and allow businesses (and thus customers) to take advantage of drone technology.
One of the most vocal is DroneUp, which is the largest drone delivery company in Florida. DroneUp currently has a fairly robust partnership with Walmart, where it operates drone deliveries out of Walmart stores across six states (including about a dozen stores in Florida).
DroneUp has run into challenges in the past in Florida, such as when it tried to apply for a business license to fly drones out of a Walmart near Orlando but county zoning staffers said it would have to apply for a land-use change in order to do so (which then would likely mean potentially contentious public hearings). And in another example in Florida’s Osceola County, the government was going to mandate a pre-application process, which would have added more time, paperwork, money and overall red tape.
The new law would likely cut back on all those extra steps (erm, roadblockers) and thus make drone delivery more accessible to more people. An estimated 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart. So if drone delivery extended to every Walmart store in the country, that puts a vast majority of Americans in a position to be able to receive drone deliveries.
“DroneUp thanks Senators Collins and Boyd for spearheading the efforts of the Florida Senate to pass legislation that will enable Walmart to provide drone delivery services to an expanding number of Florida citizens,” DroneUp COO Anthony Vittone said in a prepared statement. “Whether it’s faster and more convenient delivery of goods or assisting with disaster relief efforts, the benefits of drone technology reach far and wide.”
For what it’s worth, DroneUp also likely created some financial incentive to get the law passed. In February 2023, DroneUp gave $25,000 to the Continental Political Committee, which is a Florida Political Action Committee. In turn, the Continental Political Committee in March 2023 gave $5,000 to Quiet Professionals FL, an organizations that solicits, accepts and expends contributions and is affiliated with Jay Collins, the senator who sponsored the bill. The Continental Political Committee also in March 2023 gave $5,000 to “Citizens for Building Florida’s Future.,” a similar organization associated with Representative Wyman Duggan, one of the representatives supporting the bill.
DroneUp said that it hopes other states will follow Florida’s footsteps and pass similar laws.
Other drone delivery companies have also found success in Florida — even ahead of the new law set to go into effect this July. Back in 2021, Verrizon-owned Skyward was testing 5G integration for drone delivery of retail products at The Villages in Florida, an adult retirement community. Though, that project has since been cut after Skyward unexpectedly shut down in 2022.
How do Florida’s drone laws compare to the rest of the nation?
While the removal of red tape around building delivery drone ports is certainly a good thing, Florida doesn’t get all the praise for being a drone-friendly state.
In fact, the libertarian-leaning non-profit research think tank Mercatus rated the most drone-friendly states through its Drone State Scorecard project, and Florida came in at No. 41.
Among the reasons that Florida scored so low is that Florida law does not create an avigation easement, which means drone operators may be subject to nuisance and trespass laws, even if their drones do not disturb people on the ground. Additionally, Florida law does not expressly provide air rights to landowners, which raises litigation risk for drone operators.
And then there is one Florida drone law that is causing a huge headache for government agencies that use drones. That’s Florida Senate Bill 44, which was first filed in 2020 and approved by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in June 2021.
That law requires that the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) create and publish a list of approved drone manufacturers that meet specific security standards. It states that — as of January 1, 2023 — Florida governmental agencies may only purchase or otherwise acquire drones that meet minimum security requirements, which severely limits the types of drones agencies can use.
There are some explicitly-approved manufacturers including follow-me drone maker Skydio and Teal, which recently launched its military-focused, nighttime powerhouse Teal 2 drone. But it also severely limits agencies from using drones that are often viewed as either more accessible, easier to fly, more reliable, cheaper, or some combination of all of those things — notable DJI drones.
A 2022 report from public safety and disaster response non-profit Airborne International Response Team (AIRT) found that — at the time — 92% of Florida government drone programs were operating DJI drones as part of their fleet. That meant a lot of agencies were flying on no-longer-approved drones, not only leaving them scrambling to acquire new drones, but also creating challenges for how to pay for them.
Most of the Florida-government-approved drones come from American drone companies, which are almost always far more expensive than drones made in China. For agencies that rely on tax-payer funding, price is critical not just for those agencies, but also for taxpayers.
To date, an estimated, nearly $200 million in taxpayer money has been spent on government drones across the state of Florida.