New Jersey is a Drone Industry Trend Setter

New Jersey, with its dense population centers and busy international airports, would seem like an inauspicious site for a burgeoning drone industry.  But, in fact, the Garden State is a national trend-setter, ranking #10 on the Virginia-based Mercatus Center’s 2023 scorecard of America’s most “drone-ready” state jurisdictions.  New Jersey scored 58 out of a possible 100 points, ranking it just below states like Arkansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota, all of which have wide open rural landscapes that facilitate unrestricted drone-flying, but above states like Montana, Nevada and Texas with similar drone-friendly characteristics.

New Jersey’s high ranking is due, in part, to the establishment of a standing executive-level coordinating body located within the Bureau of Aeronautics in the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The state’s drone task force avidly promotes drone technology for initiatives related to traffic management, structural inspections, and aerial corridor 3D mapping, as well as public safety and disaster relief support operations.   In addition, the state passed a law that indemnifies drone fliers against lawsuits from New Jersey landowners for use of their property for drone overflights.

Both initiatives have allowed the state’s drone industry to develop quickly, taking advantage of available commercial opportunities in response to burgeoning consumer demand.

New Jersey’s proximity to New York, where the drone industry is more tightly restricted, has also made it an attractive platform for drone operators seeking access to airspace shared by the two states.  Drone air shows, for example, can be freely staged from the New Jersey side of Hudson River, in Jersey City, and watched by millions of viewers in Manhattan.  New York-based companies can also conduct drone operations at some of their facilities located in Jersey City to advance their business interests at home.

New Jersey has also set a number of drone use precedents.  For example, it’s the first state in the nation to deploy drones as investigative “eyes in the sky” to monitor construction sites where employers are suspected of violating New Jersey labor laws, according to the state Labor Department.

“These cameras can zoom in pretty tight to see how many workers there are and what kind of work they are doing so we can see what kind of wages they should be paid,” Labor Department Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in a news report last September.

Law enforcement is also a huge growth niche for drones in New Jersey.  Police departments in Hackensack and Clifton, NJ acquired drones late last year, primarily to find and rescue lost and missing persons.  The two departments purchased drones with thermal imaging cameras that can locate persons at night, based on their heat signature alone.  Mercer County just used its own thermal imaging drone to find a missing 5-year old within ten minutes, saving the youngster from freezing temperatures and possible death.  Some jurisdictions, like Ocean County, possess large UAV fleets with as many as 16 drones serving three dozen municipalities in a wide range of law enforcement roles, including 911 response, SWAT hostage support, and crime and accident scene analysis.

Another special role for drones in New Jersey is coastal patrol, to warn beach goers about looming sharks and to rescue swimmers in the face of recurring rip tides.  Atlantic City, a major national tourist spot, and other popular beach locales, are acquiring special beach patrol and rescue drones, making New Jersey second only to Florida, in pioneering this rapidly expanding drone niche.

The case of New Jersey illustrates how drones can adapt to diverse locales and fill hitherto unexplored niches.  Ultimately, it’s the political will of a state’s office holders, more than its climate, geography or topography, that determines whether a drone industry is growing to meet the ever-expanding need of its agencies and businesses for fast, cost-effective and sustainable alternatives to conventional gas- and road-based technologies.

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