Do Drone Superhighways Really Have a Future?

Brent Skorup, Senior Research Fellow at the Fairfax, VA-based Mercatus center, is one of the nation’s leading proponents of drone “super highways.”  A drone superhighway is a designated corridor of airspace in which drones can fly largely unimpeded at long distance and without the need for remote piloting,   Currently, a few such drone corridors exist, based on specific waivers and exemptions granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  One such corridor, roughly 50 miles long,  stretches across upstate New York, near one of the FAA’s seven designated drone “sandboxes,”  where intensive UAV flight testing, much of it focused on Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, is underway.

But what Skorup and others have in mind is far more expansive.    Rather than requiring drone fliers to obtain BVLOS regulatory waivers for specific drone flights, piecemeal, or for ongoing but time-limited flights by drone aircraft that have passed rigorous safety tests – which is the current ad hoc and widely criticized FAA practice –  superhighways would permit BVLOS flights to proceed largely unimpeded in designated airspaces continuously, most likely above federal highways and state roads away from heavily populated areas.

It sounds eminently logical but not all drone industry stakeholders, including the FAA, are keen on the idea.  Far from it.  Some stakeholder believe that drones are still not sufficiently safety-tested to be permitted ongoing BVLOS operational autonomy; they worry that drones, unless equipped with sophisticated and expensive sense-and-avoid technology, might wreak havoc on each other and on vehicular traffic below.

Others have an opposite concern:  By restricting BVLOS flights to designated areas above existing road infrastructure, drone fliers may have less autonomy when it comes to flying over crowded cities and towns, and above private property, without obtaining specific permission to do so.   The process of obtaining such approval could be time-consuming and cumbersome, interrupting supply and delivery schedules and rendering many drone overflights too cost-ineffective to be pursued.

The same might be true of drone law enforcement operations, they argue.  Rapid cooperation among different first-responders operating in different jurisdictions can facilitate criminal pursuit and even search-and-rescue operations;  eliminating arbitrary airspace barriers and allowing for unimpeded cooperation is critical to success; without it, police could find themselves hamstrung and unable to save lives and prevent further injury.

Skorup has eagerly promoted the idea that “highways in the sky” are the key to allowing the drone industry to fulfill its commercial potential.  At Mercatus, he has compiled an annual “scorecard” of drone industry progress in all 50 states, ranking each, in part, on its level of support for drone corridors.  Other factors are whether a state 1) has established a government task force to promote its drone industry, 2) provides easements to private landowners for use of their property for drone overflights, 3) has a  designated drone flight test center and 4) is promoting employment in the drone industry.  A combination of this cluster of factors determines whether a state is deemed to be “drone friendly” and points to areas where additional state action may be needed.

Skorup’s research suggests that a third of US states already allow for the leasing of airspace above their state and local roads and federal highways, an important step toward establishing a drone corridor.   However, full-fledged corridors are few in number. Aside from New York’s — which has recently gone international with the inclusion of Montreal as one corridor end point (Syracuse is the other) — new drone corridors are planned in just two other states.   Skorup recently served on the Texas state drone advisory task force where plans to establish a drone superhighway there were discussed and approved.  Elsewhere, momentum behind the idea is growing, albeit slowly, Skorup suggests, due to the maze of legal, economic, technological and regulatory issues that remain unresolved.

Other countries, including the UK and China, are beginning to explore the drone superhighways and have made steady progress, in part because their political systems are less decentralized.  Britain plans to establish a 160-mile drone corridor that runs through small and medium-sized towns in central England, with the primary emphasis on BVLOS flights for emergency medical supply delivery, including chemotherapy drugs and vaccines.  China likewise is focusing on medical supplies, but plans to allow BVLOS flights over some of its major cities.

In a recent podcast, Skorup predicted that drone superhighways in the US will inevitably expand as global competitive pressures increase and the economic costs of failing to keep pace becomes apparent.  But others are less sanguine.  An FAA rule-making committee has recommended establishing drone superhighways for flights below an altitude of 100 feet.  Lower altitude flights might ensure that drones and commercial aircraft occupy more distinct airspaces, but would not necessarily resolve concerns about the noise and safety impact of low-level drone flights over highly populated areas.

Even with stronger FAA approval, which may not be forthcoming, not all state legislatures are likely to join the drone superhighway bandwagon.   Some state legislators in South Carolina and elsewhere have spoken out vocally against them.  In theory, the FAA controls all national airspaces but that control, in a strict sense, applies only to higher altitudes.  That means compromises with state authorities, many of them representing private landowners with their own low-level airspace rights, will be required. Will landowners be granted – or demand – the right to monetize their presumptively owned airspaces, or will the FAA and state governments attempt to impose their own uniform rules, mandating cooperation?

The issue has barely been raised, let alone resolved, and until it is, drone corridors will likely remain one-off pilots in highly restricted government regulated airspaces without broader national or commercial application.

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