(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)
Multiple states have introduced legislation to regulate drone operation by handing more power over to local authorities and imposing new rules and fees on drone usage. Legislation in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and West Virginia would give power to either the state Department of Transportation (DOT) or local governments to authorize and regulate drone operation in “avigation easements,” a term that describes the right to use airspace over a property. These proposals risk creating a patchwork of no-fly zones for drones, or even worse, toll roads in the sky, that could limit commercial use of the technology.
The West Virginia bill, H.B. 2726, allows local governments to issue permits for drone operation above public roads, though governments are not allowed to charge a fee for these permits. The Louisiana bill, H.B. 587, is similar, but does not forbid charging fees.
The Mississippi bill, S.B. 2262, gives the Mississippi DOT power over avigation easements above state highways and waterways. The Mississippi DOT could also partition the airspace above state highways and waterways into separate levels and lease these to different parties. It could charge a fee but must charge “fair market value.”
Finally, the Texas bill, H.B. 3403, also gives the Texas DOT power over avigation easements above state-owned land and would make it unlawful to operate a drone outside direct line-of-sight without an avigation easement. Local governments and private landowners could also apply to the Texas DOT to establish avigation easements over their land. The DOT fee structure would charge drone operators either by the minute or allow them to purchase a plan granting them access for a flat fee.
States charge fees to drive on toll roads because state governments build and maintain those roads, but that concept doesn’t translate to the sky. It doesn’t cost state governments anything to let drones or anything else fly above their roads and waterways, so it doesn’t make sense for states to charge fees for drones to fly in this airspace.
Drones are a nascent and rapidly developing technology, and overregulation and unnecessary fees would put the brakes on innovation when it’s needed most. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of delivery, as many Americans have relied on delivery services to buy groceries, order meals, and shop for other essential items without entering a physical store and risking infection. Drones would further reduce risk during a pandemic by ensuring contactless delivery. Delivery drones also have the potential to be faster, cleaner, and saferthan traditional delivery methods, and can more easily serve rural communities. During the pandemic, drones delivered medications, personal protective equipment, face masks, and test kits to rural communities. Drones also have a long list of applications in other sectors, from agriculture to real estate, and further development of drone technology will only expand that list, but only if regulators step back and don’t create obstacles to adoption and innovation.
Instead of a patchwork of state laws imposing fees and restrictions on drone operators, the United States should stick to a single set of clear federal guidelines that balances safety and innovation. This will encourage innovation instead of standing in its way. Without unnecessary regulatory hoops to jump through, more people and businesses will take advantage of drones’ unique capabilities, to the benefit of consumers, public health, and the economy.