A reservation in Oklahoma charts the future of drone delivery

As James Grimsley made his way to high school through the small town of Atoka, he had no choice but to admire the natural beauty – rolling hills, evergreen trees, big blue skies.

Atoka, a town of 3,000 people nestled on the Choctaw Nation Reservation in Oklahoma, is still where Grimsley calls home more than three decades later. But today, hidden within the 11,000 square mile plot of land is one of the largest drone delivery test sites in the world.

“Here in rural southeast Oklahoma on a reservation, we have a front row seat to see what the future of this technology will look like,” Grimsley told Modern Shipper. “We are seeing systems flying for the first time. We see these operations happening here that will probably be common in the future, but they aren’t now.

life on the reserve

For as long as Grimsley can remember, life on the reservation was tough. During the Trail of Tears campaign of ethnic cleansing from 1831 to 1850, the Choctaw people were the first to be forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, which covered parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and current Arkansas.

Since then, the tribe has become impoverished, relying largely on agriculture, casinos, and government labor to keep its economy afloat. Because the tribe’s businesses receive little federal funding, much of the revenue it generates is typically funneled back into local businesses and stimulus projects.

The Choctaw Nation is home to a huge pecan orchard that processes over 150,000 pounds of pecans each year. (Photo: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

“It was a very poor area with generational poverty, but they’re very kind,” Grimsley said. “There was always this sense of selflessness and caring for the community.”

Still, Grimsley explained, if you found a way out, you usually went to college. That’s exactly what he did after graduating from high school, earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, and a master’s degree in technical engineering from the University of Oklahoma. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college.

Returning to reserve was never in Grimsley’s plan, he said. He would spend the next 35 years working in various aviation jobs, including some work with commercial drones. But in 2016, Grimsley received a phone call that would change her mind.

Receive the call

While working as associate vice president of research at OU, Grimsley picked up the phone and was greeted by a few familiar voices. They were old friends he grew up with in Atoka, who now work for the tribal government, and they had a proposition.

They explained that the Choctaw Nation had purchased a 44,500 acre parcel of land and were looking for something innovative that they could do with it without destroying it. Their solution? Use the property as a proving ground for advanced aviation and drone delivery.

An aerial view of the proposed test area. (Photo: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

At first, Grimsley was skeptical. But he called a friend who worked at NASA to see if he could make inroads with other agencies. A week later, he received a reminder that the federal government had a keen interest in working with the tribe, seeing it as a way to circumvent some of the industry’s regulatory hurdles, particularly those surrounding takeoff and leasing. automated landing and flights beyond. the pilot’s visual line of sight (BVLOS).

Soon after, Grimsley learned of the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to launch the Integration Pilot Program (IPP), an initiative designed to accelerate the adoption of drones in US airspace. The tribe commissioned him to research and report on the program’s potential impacts, and in 2017 the Choctaw Nation became one of nine IPP participants.

“When they got that designation, that’s when it became clear that I had to leave my academic position and do it full-time,” Grimsley recalled.

Going back to booking, things had changed. During his absence, there had been a major economic turnaround for the tribe. It had lowered its unemployment rate by double digits to less than 4% and living conditions had improved.

However, Grimsley, a transport commissioner for the region, believed drone delivery could unlock a new level of security and economic growth. He cited an alarming statistic: 35% of the US population lives in rural areas, yet 65% of road deaths occur in these areas. The introduction of drone delivery could reduce the tribe’s reliance on these roads and highways.

Not only that, but adding another layer of transportation could open up the economy to new goods and services.

“We see this as something that will help us with public safety coupled with opportunity,” Grimsley said. “A lot of the delivery we’re looking at right now is health-related – being able to connect clinics, and patients to clinics.”

But it didn’t matter how optimistic Grimsley was on the program. He needed to get the people of Choctaw on board in order to get it off the ground – and he wasn’t particularly optimistic.

“I always assumed the worst, that the public wouldn’t like it,” he said.

But that’s not what happened: “It was the opposite of that,” Grimsley continued. “People were like, ‘This is interesting. When will that happen? When will we see the benefits of drones?’

Community members gather to witness a test flight. (Photo: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

With federal, tribal and civilian stakeholders aligned, Grimsley was given the green light to turn the reservation into a hub for future technology.

There’s something in the air

Today, the Choctaw Nation Proving Ground is one of the largest of its kind in the world, attracting hundreds of companies from around the world.

But despite all that activity, Grimsley and the tribe have managed to keep the environmental impact nearly non-existent. This is because the program only uses about 35 acres of land for hangars and other facilities.

“We don’t really touch the rest of those 44,000 acres, and that’s one of the most elegant ways to use this property because we don’t damage it,” he said. “We mainly fly electric, so we don’t pollute. We do not create any noise situation. We do not disturb wildlife.

A small fleet of drones staged on a launch pad in the proving grounds. (Photo: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

Interested in getting in on the action? Good news: the tribe does not have strict criteria for who can participate in the program. It simply asks interested companies to submit a petition to them.

“We don’t want to be cocky,” Grimsley said. “We don’t know the business case for everyone. We don’t necessarily plan everything in the future. So we always ask people to start with a proposal – come bring us something, let’s talk about it.

After receiving the petition, the tribe will consider items such as the necessary investments, on-site costs, the potential for job creation, and the possibility of the business moving to the reservation. But the process is relatively forgiving, designed to fly as many drones into the sky as possible.

“We know that if we help advance the regulatory system and help develop rules, we’re also going to be helping ourselves,” Grimsley said.

Yet safety remains a priority. The Choctaw government has invested heavily in measures such as ground-based radars and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) receiver networks, which use satellite navigation or other sensors to determine an aircraft’s position. .

The Choctaw Nation also served on the board of directors of the FAA’s BVLOS regulatory advisory committee, which in March recommended new regulations for drone flights that go beyond the operator’s line of sight.

The future air corridor

In just a few short years, Grimsley has helped elevate the program – and reserve life – to new heights.

“There was a net outflow of people,” he said. “People were leaving. They didn’t come here. We stopped that. People come here, and the landscape in terms of opportunity, quality of life, quality of health – everything – has changed dramatically.

The program gradually took on a life of its own, touching over the 44,500-acre test area. It’s helped boost STEM education, with schools across the reservation – including Grimsley’s hometown of Atoka – embracing aviation curricula and training the next generation of drone delivery experts. . Kids can even visit the test site and watch live demonstrations.

A video from 2022 explains how the program helps the aviation industry circumvent regulatory hurdles. (Video: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

“It was a remarkable success, and it brought a lot of recognition,” he said. “The reserve was able to highlight the culture and type of people who are part of the Choctaw Nation. They are really good people, very loyal people. They are hardworking, committed. It really brought to light all those sorts of virtues that really characterize the tribe itself.

Even beyond that, however, the program has helped reinvigorate the Choctaw Nation’s economy, attracting businesses to the reservation. This turned the tribe into the largest employer in southeast Oklahoma and also contributed to the reservation’s $2.5 billion economic impact on the state in 2019.

But Grimsley has even bigger plans in mind. Namely, a complete overhaul of how Americans build and maintain transportation infrastructure.

“We just can’t keep building highways and developing transportation like we always have,” he said. ” It’s going to be hard. But I think we’re going to start to see more overlap between what we do on the ground and in the air.

Instead of raising the quality of roads and highways in the face of ever-increasing capacity problems, Grimsley proposes building a new transport layer. It is, of course, about drones, and it could see the program develop something like the UK’s 165-mile aerial drone corridor.

By adding another layer of transportation above land corridors, Grimsley believes drone delivery can ease the burden on roads — and build a fairer supply chain.

“In the 21st century United States of America, your zip code is still a strong predictor of your health outcomes, your access to opportunity, and just your overall quality of life,” he said. “So your postcode basically gives us an indication of what kind of infrastructure you’re going to have access to for transportation.”

This is not the world Grimsley wants to live in. But he and the tribe hope drone delivery can help bridge the gap between richer and poorer ZIP codes.

“One of the things you’ll see with the Choctaw Nation is that we look at things like this with the belief that the future is bright,” Grimsley said. “We think in the balance of things, things are going to be great.”

About Michael B. Billingsley

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