JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Are we ready for drone skyways?

Published 9:18 am Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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RALEIGH — In Ukraine and other armed conflicts across the globe, the drone has proven its worth as a gatherer of intelligence and a deliverer of destruction. What’s coming next, however, is a vastly expanded role for the drone here at home: as the gatherer and deliverer of commercial goods and services.

John Hood

You can’t yet order flashlight batteries or casserole mixes and have them delivered to your door by a flying vehicle. But that’s only because you live in North Carolina rather than in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah or Virginia. Walmart just launched a pilot program in those states to deliver consumer products by drone. Amazon will try out its new Prime Air service in select California communities later this year.

If such deliveries (and pickups) prove popular with consumers, our skies could soon be thick with drones. Are we truly ready for this?

In North Carolina, the answer is … kinda. George Mason University’s Mercatus Center recently ranked the states according to their preparedness for drone commerce. As it happens, North Carolina tied with Georgia and New Jersey for sixth-best in the country. On the other hand, North Carolina scored a 58 on a 100-point scale. Only because so many other states are so woefully underprepared does our state rank so highly.

Brent Skorup, a senior research fellow at Mercatus, authored the study. He identified six criteria for evaluating the states in prep work already completed for drone commerce. North Carolina fared quite well in four of the criteria. For example, we already have a law on the books that protects drone operators from nuisance and trespass laws as long as the drones don’t disturb people on the ground. We also have staff members within the state Department of Transportation who are tasked with making sure drone operators comply with various insurance, operational and safety rules.

What North Carolina doesn’t have, though, is clear authority for states and localities to lease the space above public infrastructure for use by private firms as delivery paths — as “drone skyways,” if you will. That creates a significant barrier to the development of the industry.

Among the most likely avenues for low-altitude delivery vehicles are the airspaces above our highways and streets. It will often make sense for drone operators to follow the contours of existing road networks, at least at first. That will ensure that the drones are “safely separated from airports, homes, schools, and other sensitive locations,” Skorup argues. “Leasing airspace above public roadways would accelerate drone services, because creating flight paths over backyards and private lands raises difficult questions about the taking of private property.”

Some states have already authorized private leasing of such spaces. North Carolina should follow their lead. Oregon’s statute, for example, is clear and to the point: “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.”

Skorup also recommends that states create “regulatory sandboxes” where private firms can experiment with creative approaches to the new service. New York has designated a 50-mile corridor where companies can test their drone deliveries. In Oklahoma, the Choctaw nation did the same for more than a thousand square miles of tribal land. Ohio and Maryland made little-used rural airports available for the same purpose.

With the right legal and regulatory framework in place, North Carolina could become home to a thriving private industry that supplies convenient, affordable services while reducing traffic congestion. Drones are not, of course, going to replace all delivery trucks or drives to the store. But for a variety of lightweight items, delivery or pickup by drone is already feasible and economical.

A common criticism of public officials is that they’re overly reactive and backward-looking. In this case, they have a great opportunity to get ahead of an issue without wasting tax dollars or curtailing anyone’s freedoms. Why not add “first in skyways” to North Carolina’s list of accolades?

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.