What are the top drone friendly states for new drone industry? While it’s clear that some states have been focused on drone regulation to keep the industry out of their skies, others have been out in front of the curve, actively putting programs in place to attract new drone business. With innovative financial incentives, some of the best educational resources in the country, testing facilities for new technologies, and state governments that are deliberately creating a flexible framework to support innovation, these three states stand out as the among the very best drone friendly states today.
Listed alphabetically – the only fair thing to do, as all three of the states profiled offer unique programs to support the industry – our picks as the top states for the drone industry are: New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.
New Mexico has a lot to offer visitors, from beautiful scenery to gorgeous weather. But New Mexico also has a lot to offer the drone industry; including a drone-friendly legislature, great tax incentives, a powerful existing infrastructure to support innovators in the aerospace industry, and a populace ready to embrace new technology.
The 5th largest state by land mass, New Mexico already enjoys a large aerospace industry. The states 4 airforce bases and airforce research laboratories have formed the backbone of a high tech aerospace ecosystem, producing a large pool of highly skilled workers. New Mexico boasts one of the highest concentrations of engineers in the country, largely due to the laboratories; Debra Inman, Vice President of Albuquerque Economic Development says that makes New Mexico stand out as a great location for the drone industry. “It comes down to the talent that we have. When we have that kind of talent base available… I don’t know how you could have a better location than New Mexico,” she says.
Mike Espiritu, President of the Otero Country Economic Development Council, says that it isn’t only the talent base that makes New Mexico the perfect place for drone business. “You can see the synergy between land mass and facilities,” he points out. New Mexico’s testing facilities form an impressive list. The White Sands Missile Range is a rocket range of over 3,000 square miles; a unique relationship with the FAA allows for types of drone testing that may not be available anywhere else in the country. New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Labs offers a UAS Flight Test Center that was the first FAA approved location in the NAS, and has conducted more drone testing and evaluation flights than all of the other FAA test sites combined. New Mexico is also home to the grandly named Spaceport America, 18,000 acres within an optionally restricted airspace uniquely sited to provide testing with less regulatory paperwork. In addition to the testing facilities, Spaceport America acts as a center for the drone industry and community – they will host the Spaceport America Drone Summit sometime next year as a way to bring the FAA and the drone community together.
This network of facilities is not new to New Mexico. The seal of the Whitesands Missile Range reads: “The birthplace of America’s missile and space activity,” and Dr. William Gutman, Director of Aerospace Operations at Spaceport America, says that means that New Mexico is ready for the drone explosion. “We’re accustomed to seeing unusual things in the sky,” he says, smiling.
“New Mexico as a whole has always been involved with new technology – we have a populace in general that is embracing of new technology,” says Eric CdeBaca, Vice President of Business Development at the New Mexico Partnership. “We adapt well. The missions of the labs have evolved over the years.”
Debra Inman agrees, saying that the drone industry is not new to the state. “We’ve positioned ourselves better than anyplace else in the United States – we’ve been working with the drone industry for over a decade. We’ve been on the ground since the very beginning.”
In addition to New Mexico’s impressive facilities is one thing that money can’t buy: the weather. “We’ve had our 26th space launch, only 2 have been delayed by weather… compare that to anywhere else in the country,” Gutman laughs.
In addition to the friendly skies and test sites, New Mexico offers new drone companies a tax structure that would make many a Californian entrepreneur drool. New Mexico has made significant efforts to encourage new businesses to locate there, providing a corporate income tax structure that gives New Mexico the lowest effective tax rates among western states for manufacturing. Add to that local economic development grants for infrastructure development – funded at $50 million – and you have a very attractive climate. “We have a very agressive program, in addition to our standard tax benefits,” CdeBaca says.
“Companies should take a close look at us: we have the assets, the resources, and the talent to make it happen. We’re a perfect match for this industry.” says Eric CdeBaca, and Mike Espiritu agrees. “New Mexico is not a stranger to the drone industry – we’re a place where drone activity just makes sense.”
Next up on our list is North Dakota. At the recent AUVSI Xponential show, North Dakota showcased their industry, letting the drone community know in no uncertain terms that they are open and ready for the drone business.
North Dakota, who has invested over $35 million so far in supporting the drone industry, sees drone technology as a perfect fit to support all of the industries in the state. Focus industries include agriculture, energy, oil and gas – all areas that benefit directly from drone technology. Paul Lucy, Director of the Division of Economic Development and Finance at North Dakota’s Department of Commerce, explains: “We see it not only as an opportunity to support growth of a new industry – but also to support the existing industries in North Dakota, and make sure that they maintain a position on the cutting edge.”
Maybe because the drone industry provides so much direct benefit to existing businesses, the people of North Dakota are on board, says Brian Opp, the Department of Commerce’s Aerospace Business Development Manager. “People understand that this is going to benefit their lives. People are excited about the technology – they want to reap the benefits. The leadership of the state has been at the forefront of this push from as far back as 2005.”
North Dakota offers a trained workforce and a broad base of understanding of the drone industry. The University of North Dakota has been doing manned aviation training for over 50 years – and they were the first school to offer an undergraduate degree in UAS, back in 2009. The school offers a UAS center of excellence for research and training; a useful tool for engaging industry. The UND Center for Innovation has dedicated a wing to UAS. “It’s impressive – not just the quantity, but the diversity of the activity – people working on all aspects of the industry,” says Opp. The Northern Plains FAA UAS Test Site is one of the most diverse test sites in the country – offering a nighttime operations COA and other unique capabilities; it also has funding available to encourage its use by industry.
In addition to drone-specific education, the talent pool for the industry is broad and robust, Opp explains; pointing out that the University’s agricultural and energy researchers also contribute to the knowledge base and provide a rigorous framework of understanding about a wide range of drone applications.
The talent pool is there and the facilities in place – but what really makes North Dakota stand out as a top state for the industry is the state’s entrepreneurial spirit. That spirit is backed up by a huge array of significant programs and incentives, all designed to help new drone businesses succeed. Brian Opp says that the support comes from the top. “We cannot emphasize enough the engagement and support that we get from state leadership – our leadership is focused on this and they have been for years.”
Paul Lucy agrees, saying that North Dakota has fully embraced a culture of innovation. “There’s a groundswell of entrepreneurial culture, of which UAS is a big part,” he says. “It’s an intersection of entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology -embraced by people and supported by the state.”
The Grand Sky – UAS Business park is one example of how North Dakota’s efforts to support new businesses have resulted in real infrastructure development. Grand Sky is more than just an office park. The facility is connected with the runway at Grand Forks Airforce Base, and enjoys a joint use agreement. In addition, the park was designed as an opportunity to create a drone cluster – and foster collaboration between new companies. Paul Lucy says that this has directly helped the companies in Grand Sky develop their businesses: “North Dakota is small enough and we have enough of a development network so that the opportunities for networking are unparalleled. It’s a unique environment where the companies interact and refer each other to business opportunities. ”
And networking isn’t the only way that North Dakota supports the businesses. In addition to a favorable tax climate, the state offers a significant economic development portfolio to encourage collaborative research: which means a variety of funding opportunities and real incentives for new drone businesses. The North Dakota Development fund, a revolving fund to encourage innovative industry, recently invested their 100 millionth dollar. “North Dakota has the only state owned bank,” explains Paul Lucy. “Bank of North Dakota has a variety of different programs to support multiple industry sectors. ”
The financial and networking programs that North Dakota offers for industry are too numerous to mention them all, but Lucy sums it up simply: “In North Dakota we look for reasons to say yes, instead of reasons to say no.” Brian Opp agrees. “I don’t know if you’d find any other place that would offer more support for this industry.”
Third on our list of drone friendly states is Oklahoma. DRONELIFE spoke with Dr. Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Science and Technology, and Dr. Jamey Jacob, Director Unmanned Research Institute at Oklahoma State University (OSU.)
With the tag line “The State of Success, The State of Advantages,” Oklahoma is clearing putting its money on the table for the drone industry. It’s list of financial programs is impressive: major tax benefits both corporate and personal, pooled finance incentive for investment in facilities, machinery and equipment, an aerospace engineer workforce tax credit, a quality jobs 10-year cash incentive, and sales tax refunds for manufacturers and aerospace maintenance and repair. Add that to Oklahoma’s low cost of living and you might have a perfect place for a new entrepreneur to get started. “We’re attracting some of the best engineers…there are some very, very attractive packages for this industry,” says Dr. McKeever.
It isn’t only finances that make Oklahoma attractive. With over 125,000 people already employed in the aerospace industry, Oklahoma lawmakers saw the advantages of the drone industry early. The state’s top three industries are energy (wind, oil and gas), agriculture, and aerospace: “These are the top three industries impacted by the drone industry… Oklahoma made a strategic decision to promote itself as a drone state,” says McKeever.
Kraettli L. Epperson, founder of Vigilant Aerospace Systems, agrees. “I have deep roots in Oklahoma – Oklahoma has a long history of aviation pioneers. There’s a lot of engineering talents.” Epperson says that Oklahoma was instrumental in getting his drone business started. Vigilant is a provider of sophisticated sense-and-avoid, flight safety and flight de-conflicting technologies to help integrate drones into the NAS. The company has a unique offering: they use existing FAA systems and protocols. Epperson says that Oklahoma’s WBT Open Innovation Forum was where he met the NASA scientists who developed the technology that they use. In addition, Epperson participates in a UAS Cluster Initiative to encourage early stage companies and the governor’s UAS Council, which Dr. McKeever chairs. “You couldn’t ask for more support and a better channel to local government,” he says.
Oklahoma has an independently run UAS flight center, which pre-dates the FAA Test site program and is not tied to some of the same paperwork issues that other FAA sites experience. OSU’s UML has had a UAS flight center for about 5 years – they’ve done over 1,000 flights evaluating drone operations; the aerospace industry benefits enormously from this access. Jacob says that the independent flight center supports innovation that can’t be tested easily elsewhere: “This gives us a lot of leeway for some programs,” he comments.
The infrastructure that exists for the aerospace industry easily accommodates the drone industry, and the industries most likely to benefit from drone technology are right there. But one of Oklahoma’s biggest assets is their strong network of educational and research facilities.
In practical terms, Dr. Jacob says, the research and testing facilities that serve the existing aerospace industry provide a huge benefit for the drone industry. “Our primary bread and butter is fabrication of vehicles… a hands on design – build – fly experience,” he explains. “We’ve been doing that for 25 years…. That has given us the capability to rapidly design drones – sometimes going from a clean sheet of paper to a complete prototype flight test within six months.”
With a drone flight station located near OSU campus, enjoying a blanket COA, “Groups can be in the lab in the morning and flying out in the field within a half hour,” says Jacob.
The educational facilities are not limited to aerospace and drones. The Noble Research Foundation, the largest non-profit organization for agricultural research, is developing a fleet of agricultural drones. And as one of the top places for weather research, Oklahoma recently got a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop systems to routinely use drones for forecasting.
Oklahoma’s educational system is investing in future aviation engineers, too. Dr. Jacob’s team recently worked on a design,build, and fly contest for high school and college students – a “First Robotics for Aeronautics.” Jacobs enthused about the talent he and his team saw out in the field: “We had high school students using advanced software to redesign their aircraft… it was really impressive.”
With top-down support of the drone industry, an existing aerospace infrastructure, and some great educational institutions, Secretary McKeever hopes that new businesses will take advantage of everything Oklahoma has to offer. “We are a drone friendly state – we see the value of this industry, we recognize that its growing rapidly, and we have the education, training, and physical facilities right here at our fingertips…. We’re a great place to be.”
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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