FAA, Choctaw Nation Unite under Drone Research

The FAA’s collaboration with the Native American tribe to study the use of drones for package delivery, weather-related research, and STEM outreach.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s Drone Fleet.

By Jim Tise, FAA

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) is in the process of studying an exciting technology that will provide economic and social benefits to its people, and the FAA is there to help foster that research.

The FAA is partnering with CNO on the drone program, created to work with state, local, and tribal governments to develop beyond visual line of sight operations for drones and opening doors to the many applications for which they can be used.

BEYOND will enable advances in drone operations, particularly in understanding how to safely incorporate routine beyond visual-line-of-sight flights into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Seal

The FAA will use data acquired by CNO and other lead participants to create operational standards around Part 135 operations — specifically, using drones to deliver small packages. That research should help the agency analyze and quantify the societal and economic benefits of drone operations.

The size of the CNO’s reservation and unique location in Southwest Oklahoma “provides a huge benefit to us because it represents a microcosm of the United States,” said Autumn Alderdice, an FAA aviation safety inspector and a BEYOND program manager who oversees CNO’s activities.

CNO has made significant investments in aviation infrastructure on its 11,000-square-mile reservation, including installing a ground-based radar system, a leading-edge command and control radio network, telemetry towers, and support buildings. “We’ve demonstrated our commitment with what we have invested and what we’ve done,” said James Grimsley, executive director of advanced technology initiatives for CNO.

Grimsley said CNO’s relationship with the FAA has been “incredibly positive.” BEYOND research creates tremendous opportunities for how aviation can benefit Native American communities, he said.

One of the CNO’s package delivery drones.
One of the CNO’s package delivery drones.

The main focus of CNO’s BEYOND research is Part 135 package delivery operations. The Choctaw residents in rural, isolated communities, may have scant access to health care. The ability to deliver medicine or other medical necessities quickly via drones during an emergency could save lives.

“The health implications [of drone use] are going to have the most immediate impact on rural communities,” said Grimsley.

Additionally, CNO is collaborating with Oklahoma State University to determine how drones can be used to research low-altitude weather, which, in a satate that is in the middle of “Tornado Alley,” could have a huge safety impact on the community.

Drones flown by Oklahoma State University. CNO is working with the school on important weather research using drones.

Grimsley sees investment in an even more crucial area: Choctaw youth.

CNO, with the assistance of the FAA, has been reaching out to school systems, teachers, and students through Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs to educate them about drones and inspire them to get involved in the new technology.

Grimsley noted that the agency’s Southwest Region STEM program has implemented an Adopt-a-School program with the Atoka School System, providing human and material resources to educate students about STEM and the opportunities those disciplines can offer.

Rob Lowe, administrator for the FAA’s Southwest Region, said “Atoka is a leader among educators in southeastern Oklahoma, and what we do there will have ripple effects throughout the entire region.”

Grimsley remembers how the Apollo moon missions got him interested in aerospace as a child. “We’re seeing the same thing now with these kids and drones. They’re dreaming. If we discard every other benefit we’ve had, we’ve justified our investment through STEM activities,” he said.

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