According to a report produced by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Mississippi ranks almost at the bottom for drone readiness (48th). The report measured several factors and found that Mississippi does not have an environment that is as conducive to drone industry growth as it could be. While the drone industry itself in Mississippi has many growth opportunities and is continuing to expand, state policy has not gotten up to speed with the development of this emerging technology.
Mississippi has the potential to lead the nation in many kinds of drone uses. Such uses would include agricultural surveying, rural delivery, emergency rescue, health care, and many uses that are yet to be discovered. Nevertheless, despite the potential that drones carry, state law is unprepared to facilitate the drone industry fully.
Meanwhile, other states have seized the initiative to encourage the development of drones. Nevada for instance, has a drone task force that is comprised of leaders across state government, business leaders, and research institutions. Rather than serving as a regulatory agency, the task force provides a centralized point for state leaders to produce drone policy recommendations that are informed by the people of the state. Unfortunately, Mississippi has no such task force. This leaves the lingering questions about drone usage to multiple agencies, and no long-term vision is put forth for drone growth in the state.
Another significant matter in the utilization of drones is the question of property rights. While all states have clearly defined statutes on what constitutes trespassing on physical property, there is a degree of ambiguity regarding the air above someone’s property. To address this, some states have enacted laws that specify whether or not a drone or aircraft is being a nuisance and violating the rights of a property owner below.
By having such laws, these states are protecting property owners from drone usage that may lower their property values and interfere with the use of the property. At the same time, such statutory definitions of “air rights” also protect drone operators from frivolous lawsuits. In this way, property owners can have legal recourse against actual drone-use abuses, while at the same time drone operators can have a statutory definition as a protection against frivolous claims.
Despite the benefit of such a policy, Mississippi has no statutory definition of “air rights,” and as such, the state leaves it to the sole discretion of the courts to decide if a drone is violating property rights. By leaving this question with no statutory definition, the state has the door open for potential conflict between drone operators and property owners.
Finally, the state of Mississippi has very little clarity regarding the use of drones above public right-of-way. While the Federal Aviation Administration generally has jurisdiction over airspace itself, state and local law sometimes intersects with FAA jurisdiction at lower altitudes (generally below 200 feet). By statutorily outlining drone operations at low altitudes above certain roads and other public rights-of-way, the state could create a network of “drone highways.” This would provide clear guidelines that would facilitate drone operations by providing areas with clearly defined drone policies. This removes the regulatory complexity that can occur when operators go through multiple legal jurisdictions in the state and have to make route adjustments.
Mississippi has the potential to see significant growth in its drone industry. By providing sound public policy reforms that support drone operators and property owners, Mississippi will have a framework that promotes free-market growth of the drone industry. Drones carry big potential for the Magnolia State. Public policy should encourage this potential so that even the sky is not the limit.