Is Louisiana Falling in Love with Drones?

Many states have witnessed a sharp rise in drone industry development between 2021 and 2022.  But no state in the country has made more progress than Louisiana, which saw its national ranking jump from #35 to #18 over the past year, according to the Virginia-based Mercatus Center.

Other Deep South states — including Alabama (#40), Kentucky (#43), Mississippi (#48), South Carolina (tied for #43) and Florida (#41) – continue to languish at the very bottom of the Mercatus rankings.  But Louisiana has surged ahead, leapfrogging states in New England, the Midwest, Southwest and Western regions.  In the South overall, only Georgia (#6) and North Carolina (#8) now rank higher than the Bayou State.  The question is why.

One obvious reason is the decision by the Louisiana state legislature in October 2021 to approve the establishment of a Drone Advisory Committee, or DAC.  The Committee meets four times a year to review the drone industry’s progress and to advocate on its behalf.  Committee vice-chair George Rey says the DAC’s top priority is the creation of drone “highways” above state and local roads to speed the pace of drone commerce and to facilitate drone law enforcement operations. Only seven other states have drone aerial thoroughfares of this kind, including Oklahoma, Arkansas and Montana – coincidentally, three states where the drone industry is unusually advanced (ranking #1, #2 and #4, respectively, according to Mercatus).

It wouldn’t be a big leap.  The state already allows for unrestricted drone flights over its major waterways – for wetlands monitoring and to deter illegal oyster harvesting.  But a more sweeping drone highway law would extend overflights to all state and local roadways while providing easements to local landowners for access to their property.  Passage of the law – in the face of opposition from a considerable number of stakeholders, including the FAA –  could well super-charge the industry’s development, virtually overnight, observers say.

Undoubtedly, much of the impetus for state legislative action derives from Louisiana’s experience with extreme weather events – most recently, Hurricane Ida, the state’s largest and most destructive windstorm since Hurricane Katrina in 2004.  Last year, drones played a critical role not only tracking Ida’s progress but also surveying the damage caused by the storm and pinpointing areas and persons in need of disaster assistance.  Drones sped the post-Ida recovery effort, reducing the economic costs to the state and ensuring the safety of first-responders on the ground.  But with expanded overflight authority, unmanned aircraft could more freely operate across the state, without the need for prior authorization, industry sources say.

Law enforcement in Louisiana could also benefit from expanded drone overflight authority.  Currently, police drones conduct everything from routine safety patrols on college campuses to enhanced crime scene analysis.  But under local authority, they generally restrict themselves to operations in their own jurisdictions.  With expanded highway and road overflight authority, police would be better able to chase down fleeing criminal suspects and to find missing persons no longer in their vicinity, industry supporters say.

Louisiana already has plans to deploy drones to conduct long overdue inspections of critical infrastructure.  Last June, Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, co-sponsored a House bill to secure $100 million in funding to local governments nationwide under a special Drone Inspection Initiative.  Current inspections of bridges, roads, dams and electric substations conducted by field survey teams operating on foot are time-consuming and costly, pose safety risks and may miss signs of structural damage at high and remote altitudes. Damage to Louisiana’s infrastructure, especially post-Katrina, has been immense – and aerial surveys could prove highly beneficial, Graves says.

And it’s not just the public sector.  Private companies, led by the state’s ever-expanding oil, chemical and natural gas industry – after Texas, the nation’s second most lucrative –  are also turning to drones to assist with pipeline inspections and with the monitoring of potential threats from industrial spies and saboteurs.

In recent years, drones were estimated to have added $200-$300 million in new value to the Louisiana economy.  But that’s a pittance compared to the projected value-added of drones in 2023 and beyond.  And as commercial drone use surges, so, too, will the labor market for drone pilots, designers, data engineers and mechanics.  Louisiana already ranks in the top 20 nationally for drone-related job creation and last year it was the recipient of a special FAA training and scholarship program for college students willing to embrace drones as their career path.

Not all drone trends in Louisiana are as positive as these.  One major shortfall?  The state still lacks a full-fledged drone “sandbox” –  a designated state center for drone prototype development and flight testing.  The Louisiana National Guard did create a drone “sandbox” at Ft. Polk in 2015 – where some military drones are tested – and last August, it opened a STEM science and engineering training program for high school students that includes drone flying.  But much more could be done, industry supporters say.

Another area for improvement is the development of an “avigation easement law,” which would allow commercial and recreational drone operators to fly at lower altitudes without fear of being prosecuted under local trespassing and nuisance laws.  Despite the easing of rules for businesses, privacy issues relating to drone use, especially by drone hobbyists, are a persistent concern in Louisiana, casting a shadow over drone use generally.   Without an aviation easement law, law-abiding drone fliers are still timid about flying at lower legal altitudes, or over private property, which discourages drone industry development in a number of areas (including remote food and medical supply delivery).

Despite these shortfalls, Louisiana is making remarkable progress .  Once a drone laggard of sorts, the state’s become a real “comer,” and the envy of its neighbors.  As the DAC continues to perform its overweight duties, and the state regulatory environment is clarified, more progress is likely in 2023 and beyond.

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