In 1980, Richard Fink left his professorship at Rutgers University in New Jersey and joined the Department of Economics at George Mason University in Virginia. It was at this time that he established the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. As described on the center’s website, “The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is a university-based research center dedicated to bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems.” The Mercatus Center is recognized as one of the top think tanks in the world, coming up with actionable, economic solutions for societal issues. Researchers at the center work with lobbyists and government officials to help create policy changes. In March of 2020, Brent Skorup and Connor Haaland of the Mercatus Center published a paper titled “Which States Are Prepared for the Drone Industry”? A 50-State Report Card, a paper aimed at bringing the drone industry to its fullest economic potential.
Brent has a degree in economics from Wheaton College, a law degree from George Mason University, and is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center. He is also a member of the Texas Department of Transportation’s autonomous vehicle and drone task force. A Rhodes Scholar finalist and research assistant at the Mercatus Center, Connor is also in the process of completing his law degree from Harvard University. He has been extensively involved in policies involving emerging technologies. The inspiration for Brents and Connor’s paper came from an apparent discrepancy in the roles of state and federal regulations for drone airspace management.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working to create regulations for drones within national airspace. However, as Brent and Connor point out, the technology driving drones is developing too fast for federal legislation to keep up. Brent and Connor came up with the idea to score states individually to see if they were ready and able to designate specific air corridors to jump start the drone industry, essentially making drone highways. To prove whether or not individual states could implement drone highways over existing public rights-of-way, Brent and Connor developed a ranking system based on five factors.
The first factor, worth 30 points, is Airspace Leasing which declares that states can legally lease the air corridors over public spaces. The paper cites Oregon’s policy as an example. “Any political subdivision holding the easement or fee title to a street or highway may lease the space above or below that street or highway for private purposes.” The paper goes on to explain that these laws were originally enacted with real estate development in mind, but they apply to the use of drone airspace. According to the research, more than a third of states in America allow for airspace leasing above public and/or private property.
The second factor, which nearly half of the country’s states already have in place gaining them another 10 points, is Law Vesting Air Rights with Landowners. This factor shows that individual states have laws in place that define and legally protect the rights of property owners in the relation to the airspace above properties. With such regulations in place, both property owners and drone companies would be protected from litigation. The drone highways would be designed in consideration of the laws to protect both parties.
Next is Avigation Easement Law for a total of 25 points, which again nearly half of the country’s states have already established. This law states that an aircraft can be flown over public or private property as long as it is not disturbing people on the ground. This law also makes it possible for drones to be flown over such areas without confining to a designated air corridor. The next factor, worth 20 points is an Aviation Advisory Committee that provides states with an outlet to address any concerns over drone use. The paper explains the importance of such committees because “States that have a dedicated drone advisory committee or task force will be ahead of the curve and can anticipate future issues before they become problems for industry and residents.”
The final factor to determine if a state is ready to have a designated drone highway is based on Drone Jobs Estimate worth 15 points. Using data from 2019, Brent and Connor ranked the number of drone related jobs listed in each state per every 100,000 residents so that less populous states would be weighed evenly with densely populated states. For example, California has a population of close to 40 million while Colorado has a population of close to 6 million. Still, both states scored the same for this category. The estimation of drone jobs in each state proves the validity of establishing a drone highway system for economic benefits.
After applying the rubric to all 50 states, Brent and Connor found that many ranked a high score. North Dakota ranked highest with a score of 70/100 followed by Arkansas with a score of 69/100. Many states tied while Kentucky scored lowest with only 3/100. This research shows that many states could be ready to implement drone highways safely before federal regulations can catch up to the drone industry. With these drone highways in place, drone operators and private property owners would be protected just as how state highway regulations protect drivers and property owners. The drone highways would be a catalyst for companies interested in a stake in the $30 billion drone delivery market. Added to those benefits is that through leasing airspace for safe drone highways, states could make passive income much like they would from tolls and truck weigh-in inspection stations.
While there is not yet talk of individual states actualizing drone highways, it does pose a great option. Furthering the drone industry has economic benefits on both state and federal levels. Right now the United States is being held back from accessing billions in revenue as the country still has not established regulations that would give drones the freedom to fly where necessary. There has been much improvement as the FAA has granted permission in some situations, but there is still plenty of room for growth. Brent and Connor’s research on drone highways upholds the Mercatus Center’s goal of solving real world problems through academic research.