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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa is home to leading agriculture drone developers, and its farmers pioneer the new tech for crop fertilization and nutrition. Yet the state still falls short on providing legal clarity for commercial drone operators. From start-ups to Fortune 500 firms, companies across America are testing long-distance drone services like parcel delivery and medical supplies logistics. To keep a spot at the forefront of this burgeoning industry, Iowa needs better-defined rules.
In a recent Mercatus Center at George Mason University report, we ranked all 50 states for their commercial drone readiness. North Dakota came in first, followed closely by Arkansas and Oklahoma. Iowa landed toward the bottom of the list at No. 48, right above Mississippi.
States are scored higher for several factors, like making clear that landowners own the air rights above their land, having a drone program office in their transportation departments and allowing public officials to lease low-altitude airspace above public roadways, which keeps unwanted drones away from residents’ property. Iowa law is silent on these matters, while many other states are not.
Looking to Iowa’s neighbors, Kansas has a drone task force and several pilot programs. Minnesota and Wisconsin both allow state authorities to lease low-altitude airspace over certain roadways, and they vest air rights over property with the landowners.
That’s not to say Iowa has no drone activity or drone jobs. Commercial and public safety drones are taking flight across the state. The Iowa State Patrol, news stations like KWWL and KCRG, and local event photographers and colleges regularly use drones to capture aerial footage. Police can look at interstate crashes to survey damage. The state Legislature has proactively ensured that residents have legal protections from drone surveillance by police, much like residents are protected from ordinary surveillance.
Drones have especially strong commercial potential in rural areas. Farmers can survey their fields or spray fungicide or other chemicals over high-producing sections in order to maximize the yield and conserve chemical usage. About one-third of Japan’s rice crops are now sprayed using agricultural drones. Crop dusting or spraying is traditionally done with small aircrafts or ground-based sprayers. Using a drone can reduce direct exposure to chemicals and avoid any ground-based problems and expensive small aircraft safety risks.
Rantizo, an Iowa based company, was the first business to be approved for drone spraying in the Midwest. It’s pesticide application license from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship was granted after Rantizo received the necessary Federal Aviation Administration permissions and inspections.
However, long-distance drone services like home parcel and food delivery are in development, and they will test residents’ expectations about protecting property rights. Iowa law doesn’t expressly provide air rights to landowners, which raises litigation risk for drone operators. Additionally, drone operators may be subject to nuisance and trespass laws, even when drones don’t disturb people on the ground.
The pandemic increased America’s dependence on home deliveries for groceries, prescriptions and other necessary goods. Rural residents’ struggles to receive packages on time and safely during the icy winter months could be combated by the creation of agreed-upon drone highways and delivery paths.
This future is a question of “how soon,” not “if.” Ensuring that tech companies understand the legal landscape in a state where they want to set down roots will ease the transition for everyone and keep Iowa moving.
Brent Skorup is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who serves on drone task forces for the Texas and Virginia transportation departments. Patricia Patnode, a Waterloo native, is a Mercatus research assistant.