Amazon. Alphabet. UPS. Walmart. CVS. These companies have something in common besides being among the most recognizable brands in the U.S.: All are either building or using delivery drones, or both.
According to a recent Technavio report, the market for drone delivery will balloon to $13.5 billion worldwide by 2026. North America, with the U.S. as its key market, is expected to drive 56% of that growth. But some parts of the country may grab a bigger share than others.
In its third annual “Is Your State Ready for Drone Commerce?” report, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, used a scorecard to rank every U.S. state on its ability to get commercial drone delivery programs off the ground. Here are the details:
To determine each state’s “drone readiness” score, the Mercatus Center reprised the five criteria in last year’s report. Each is designed to measure a state’s ability to create “drone highways,” aerial corridors above roads that can be used for drone delivery. The criteria include:
- Airspace lease laws — the ability to fly in airspace above public roads or private property.
- Avigation easement laws — permission to fly drones as long as they are high enough to avoid being a noise nuisance.
- Task force or program office — whether or not a state has a dedicated drone program.
- Landowners’ air rights — the risk of litigation related to the clarity of a state’s property rights (clearer rights translate to less risk).
- Jobs estimate — the number of jobs drone delivery would create.
Importantly, though, the 2022 report introduced a sixth factor. Head researcher Brent Skorup calls it the “drone sandbox.” Essentially, it measures the airspace a state has set aside for drone testing, which is a great way for drone firms to get proof of concept.
“When they have success, they can go back to their investors or to regulators and say, ‘Hey, we tested here for a month,’” Skorup told Modern Shipper. “We’ve found that’s important for these startups and early stage companies who have a difficult time getting access to airspace.”
Skorup made sure to distinguish between sandboxes and drone pilot programs, which typically involve a single company operating under a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration. In Skorup’s view, a sandbox is less exclusive, with multiple companies able to test.
To fit sandboxes into the scorecard, the researchers adjusted the weight of some of the other criteria.
Below is a top-to-bottom list ranking each state on its level of preparedness for commercial drone delivery, with deeper looks at a few particularly interesting cases.
Best of the best
Claiming the top spot in 2022’s report is Oklahoma, which may come as a surprise to some. The state doesn’t get as much drone delivery media coverage as others, but that doesn’t change the fact that right now, no state is better prepared for the industry.
Oklahoma, which ranked third on this list last year, has the highest possible score in every metric besides the jobs estimate (where it scored a 4 out of 5) and avigation easement law. It scored a zero in that category because the state lacks regulations that would protect drone operators from nuisance and trespass laws. In total, the state received a score of 74 out of 100.
Of note, Oklahoma currently boasts one of the largest drone sandboxes in the country. The Choctaw Nation, a Native American reservation, signed on as a participant in the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program (IPP), an initiative that aimed to speed adoption of drones into U.S. airspace. The tribal government has set aside over 44,000 acres of land for testing.
“I think it’s been more successful than I expected,” James Grimsley, who serves as executive director of the Choctaw Nation’s Division of Strategic Development, told Modern Shipper. “Here in rural southeastern Oklahoma, on a reservation, we have a front-row seat to what the future of that technology is going to look like. We’re seeing systems fly for the first time. We’re seeing these operations happen here that will probably be a commonplace feature.”
2. North Dakota
Others in the top half
Tied for 6. North Carolina
In sixth place for the third year in a row, North Carolina has done plenty to get drone delivery services off the ground. The state’s department of transportation (NCDoT) was another participant in the FAA’s IPP, which has allowed it to serve as a major testing ground for drone delivery firms around the world. It later signed on to the agency’s subsequent “BEYOND” initiative.
While North Carolina lacks airspace lease laws or a drone sandbox, it earns top marks in every other category besides the jobs estimate, where it scored a 3 out of 5. The state is also using drones to inspect bridges and plans to integrate them into an urban traffic management program, which has yet to launch.
“BEYOND company partners recently achieved first-in-nation vaccine deliveries, first and third FAA-certified drone delivery companies and first routine food and retail drone deliveries,” Riley Beaman, the NCDoT’s unmanned aircraft systems program manager, told Modern Shipper. “You can currently get fast food, coffee and retail items delivered by drone to your backyard in three North Carolina cities, and that service is expected to rapidly expand.”
Beaman added, “We need to continue to work with our North Carolina BEYOND team partners and the FAA to achieve scalable, repeatable and commercially viable beyond visual line of sight drone operations. We have drone operators delivering packages who have been certified by the FAA, and manufacturers are close to certifying the unmanned aircraft which will enable these operators to scale more quickly and efficiently.”
T-6. New Jersey
The most densely populated state in the country cracks the top 10 despite having, it would appear, more risk of drones being a nuisance. The state completely lacks airspace lease laws or a drone sandbox. But it scored full points for avigation easement law, task force or program office and landowners’ air rights.
“New Jersey doesn’t … get as much press about the drone programs in the state,” Skorup noted. “But I was pleasantly surprised to see a [state with] density like New Jersey doing well.”
New Jersey’s newly formed Bureau of Aeronautics is working with industry professionals to get the state ready for drone delivery. It plans to use drone technology to help with traffic management, structural inspections and 3D mapping of aerial corridors. New Jersey ranked eighth on the list last year.
Texas has been gaining momentum as a drone-friendly state in recent months, and it does a few things very well. It achieved the highest possible score for both airspace lease laws and task force or program office — the state’s Urban Air Mobility Advisory Committee began making recommendations about passenger drones and airspace policy in 2021.
However, Texas has work to do when it comes to avigation easement laws, landowners’ air rights and drone sandboxes. It scored a zero in each of those metrics, giving it a total score of 54 out of 100. That’s the same score it had last year, when it tied for ninth on the list.
It’s hard to talk about drone delivery without mentioning California. The state is home to several drone delivery firms, pilot programs and commercial services, including the highly anticipated debut of Amazon Prime Air drone delivery later this year. That should come as no surprise given the state’s large population and tech-driven economy.
So why is California ranked this low? While the state turned in perfect scores for avigation easement law, landowners’ air rights and job creation, it doesn’t have a drone program office or task force. Moreover, California’s airspace lease laws cover leases at the state level, but they are silent on local roads and property.
Ohio, with its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center, has turned itself into a more drone-friendly state after ranking in the bottom half of the list for back-to-back years. The office has created initiatives like FlyOhio and SkyVision, which aim to get drones flying in low-altitude airspace.
The state is also researching the possibility of a drone corridor above Interstate 71, and it has become the drone delivery hub for nationwide grocer Kroger. Last year, Ohio tied for 30th in the Mercatus Center’s rankings.
The bottom half
Though it may come as a surprise to see Hawaii ranked this highly, the state is sneakily in a decent position to welcome the drone industry. It turned in perfect scores for both avigation easement law and landowners’ air rights, which means the state is well protected against litigation relating to noise or nuisance complaints.
However, Hawaii won’t have drone delivery until it revisits its airspace lease laws, which currently bar drones from flying over state and local property. The state also lacks a drone task force or sandbox to promote testing.
T-30. West Virginia
33. New Hampshire
Utah has experienced a disproportionate number of drone delivery headlines, so this ranking may seem low. But the researchers have a good reason for it — the state’s airspace lease laws are actually fairly lenient “for airport purposes,” but it’s unclear whether they would apply to drones. Utah also lacks avigation easement laws, which could open up drone operators to litigation.
Still, Utah avoids the bottom five because of its forward-thinking Division of Aeronautics (DoA), which educates the public about drone technology and encourages commercial services. The state is also very clear about landowners’ air rights, which reduces the risk of litigation.
“In my opinion, we were ranked low in preparedness based on fairly weak metrics,” Jared Esselman, director of aeronautics for the Utah DoA, told Modern Shipper, defending the state’s program. “We are very prepared in other metrics, which has attracted Zipline and Walmart to both announce intentions for drone package delivery operations in Utah.
“We are currently in the final stages of our Advanced Air Mobility Infrastructure and Regulatory study. That report will be presented to the Utah Legislature in September,” Esselman added. “Moving forward, we hope to establish a phased approach to building the infrastructure to digitize the airspace and allow for many multiples of drone package delivery, and even aerial taxi operations.”
36. New York
While it doesn’t rank very highly, Alaska could offer an interesting testing ground for drone delivery. As it stands, the state lacks regulations around airspace leasing, avigation easements and landowners’ air rights. It scored a zero in all three categories.
However, Alaska does have a drone program within its Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. And while it doesn’t yet have a drone sandbox, a portion of the state’s hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness could eventually be dedicated to testing. Currently, Alaska has several testing facilities, but it hasn’t set aside any airspace for that purpose.
T-43. South Carolina
The bottom five
46. South Dakota
47. New Mexico
Of the bottom five states, New Mexico may be best positioned to jump into the top half of the list. The state bottomed out in every category besides job creation, where it scored a 3 out of 5. It does, however, have a major drone test site with airspace access at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, though the site is not affiliated with state transportation agencies.
So far, a handful of local companies have demonstrated drone tech in the state. Additionally, New Mexico’s Navajo Nation is reportedly eyeing drone delivery technology to bring food and supplies to remote communities. The potential is there for the tribe to create a drone sandbox similar to the one operated by the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
T-48. Rhode Island
Tied with Mississippi and Rhode Island at the very bottom of the list is a state that has been more than unfriendly to drones. Nebraska’s only point on the scorecard comes from its 1-out-of-5 mark for job creation. It doesn’t have any regulations around airspace leasing or avigation easements, and state leaders have shown little interest in creating a drone program office or task force.
In fact, it has actively discouraged drone delivery through regulations. Nebraska law actually permits public authorities to lease low-altitude airspace over state and local roads, but it specifically denies that right to drone operators. Leases can only be made to landowners on either side of the street in question, which has barred drone delivery from taking off.
“Perhaps drone commerce is not a priority for any lawmakers or the aviation office in the state, which is understandable — they have a lot on their plates,” Skorup speculated.
What comes next?
It’s clear that some states are more prepared for drone delivery than others, but that doesn’t mean the states at the bottom of the list can’t catch up. According to Skorup, many of the low-scoring states have rules and regulations surrounding airspace access, but they just haven’t been codified for drones.
“The issues are still there — you have this difficult problem, or ambiguity, that landowners own the airspace above their land,” he explained. “And even in traditional aviation when aircraft are flying at low altitudes, those glide paths have to yield to property rights at low altitudes.”
Watch: Drones in The Backyard
But regulations at the federal level could move things forward. Skorup pointed to a recommendation from the FAA’s Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Advisory Rulemaking Committee as a promising sign. The committee called for an expansion of the FAA’s current BVLOS rule, which limits drone flights to within the operator’s visual line of sight.
Skorup is also bullish on the possibility of the “drone highway” model coming to fruition in the U.S. Across the pond in the U.K., regulators are already experimenting with a 165-mile “drone superhighway” that would connect small and medium-size cities in England. Skorup believes that if the experiment is a success, it could spur U.S. regulators to build their own.
“It’s exciting technology,” he said. “But it will take some time for state and federal aviation officers to work together and stand up some corridors.”