Oklahoma is the leading drone delivery state in the nation, according to an authoritative report released last week by the Fairfax, VA-based Mercatus Center. Part of the reason, the report noted, is the active cooperation of the Choctaw Nation Indian reservation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the development of the latest state-of-the-art drone technology. The tribal government has set aside more than 44,000 acres of the Choctaw reservation for drone “sandbox” testing, Mercatus found. It’s an unprecedented commitment.
Mercatus ranks all 50 states based on how open they are to drone airspace rights. For example, does the state allow drones to fly in unrestricted airspace above public roads? How likely are drone operators to be sued by private property owners? Does the state have its own dedicated drone development program? How many new jobs would a drone delivery program be likely to create?
Oklahoma ranked #3 last year but in 2022 ascended to #1 thanks to its recent expansion of drone testing but also to its unusually favorable laws allowing drones to fly above public roads as well as private property above a certain altitude. Other US states in the top five are: North Dakota, Arkansas, Arizona and Minnesota.
New Jersey, now at #6, is something of a surprise because the state is densely populated. That means drones are more likely to be perceived as a nuisance and to be restricted in their airspace rights. However, the state has a vibrant drone development task force that is aggressively promoting drones for the purpose of traffic management, structural inspections and 3D mapping of aerial corridors, the report found.
Another surprise top 10 finisher is North Carolina (tied for #6), which scores high on all of the Mercatus criteria except for the jobs estimate. Like New Jersey, North Carolina is using drones to inspect bridges and has plans to integrate them into urban traffic management in the near future. By contrast, neighboring South Carolina (#43), ranks low on the Mercatus list. Other low ranking states also tend to be found in the South, including Alabama (#40), Florida (#41) and Kentucky (#43).
States in which hostility to drones is widespread tend to rank at the very bottom of the Mercatus list. For example, Nebraska (#46) allows public authorities to lease low-altitude airspace over state and local roads, but it specifically denies that right to drone operators. The state even bans drones from taking off on adjoining private property. Most states that rank in the middle tiers may lack drone airspace or easement laws or a drone development office but are still drone-friendly overall. Alaska (#38), for example, lacks an airspace leasing law but already has several drone testing facilities in place and plans to set aside a portion of its vast wilderness to expand them in the coming years.
New Mexico (#47), currently in the bottom five, may well ascend the Mercatus list next year. Native tribes in the state are considering a partnership with the FAA similar to the Choctaw Nation’s in Oklahoma.