March 1, 2022
As part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA set out to initiate a 5 year program that would focus on the incorporation of drones in shared airspace. The cornerstone of this project would see the FAA designate several official drone test sites. Each of these test sites collaborates with drone manufacturers, researchers, and aerospace experts within their local areas to work on individual challenges, with many overlapping areas.
In addition to the designated test sites, the FAA also partnered with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) to engage in the BEYOND program and the testing of unmanned low altitude parcel delivery capabilities. With more than 200,000 tribal members, the CNO is the United State’s 3rd largest Native American Nation. They have found a balance that honors the cultural traditions of their ancestors with the growing needs of modern society. The 10,923 square mile reservation the CNO occupies in central Oklahoma has become a dedicated technology business hub with a focus on drones. In 2020, the CNO had a budget of $1.9 billion that would go towards the expansion of the reservation’s business opportunities.
The CNO’s drone test site extends 25 miles over a diverse landscape. Hills, valleys, vegetation, and even powerlines provide the CNO with ample simulation scenarios to test drones. Furthermore, the CNO has total control over the landscape. This means they can push the boundaries of what is possible with drone technology, something other FAA drone test sites still struggle with.
The BEYOND program began in October of 2020. As outlined by the FAA, the BEYOND program addresses “Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations that are repeatable, scalable and economically viable with specific emphasis on infrastructure inspection, public operations and small package delivery. Leveraging industry operations to better analyze and quantify the societal and economic benefits of UAS operations. Focusing on community engagement efforts to collect, analyze and address community concerns.” The Choctaw Nation is one of 8 participants in the BEYOND program, but the only tribal government involved in FAA drone testing.
In March of 2021, the FAA announced that the CNO would begin a 3 year trial of drones in collaboration with the FAA’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center (MMAC) in Oklahoma City. The trial would be to study how drones could be used in the transportation of parcels, particularly at low altitudes. The market possibility of delivery drones is huge but needs to be approached carefully. Already successful programs are in effect, but the CNO MMAC test will see the concept to the next level. Building on the work the CNO has already done through the BEYOND program, this trial will determine the safety parameters for drones in complex BVLOS environments.
Aerospace and mechanical engineer James Grimsley helped the CNO establish its drone program in 2016 while he was the Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma. Having grown up within tribal lands, working with the CNO was a dream come true. Today James serves as the Executive Director of Advanced Technology Initiatives for the CNO. He couldn’t be more proud and excited for the innovative projects the CNO is tackling in the drone industry. “The MMAC plays a critical role in ensuring the safety of aviation operations in our nation,” he said, “and we are excited to establish formal ties between our organizations to jointly support the development and safe integration of emerging aviation technologies into our national airspace system.”