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In 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) to “to test and evaluate the integration of civil and public drone operations into our national airspace system.”
One of nine initial recipients is the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. We spoke with James Grimsley, Executive Director for Advanced Technology Initiatives at the Division of Strategic Development about the Choctaw Nation’s unique approach to deploying drones for public safety.
How did you become involved with this line of effort?
I grew up in the middle of the Choctaw Nation. My family lived here for multiple generations and we have cousins in the Choctaw Nation. When you live rural long enough, you know everyone or are related to them. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is the third-largest federally recognized tribe. The Trail of Tears established treaty boundaries in the 1830s, and it includes 10.5 counties of southeastern Oklahoma. For the last 30 to 40 years, with self-determination and legislation, the tribe has come into their own economically. They have developed pretty significant revenue streams.
The Choctaws had purchased a large tract of land, pristine, right in the middle of the Choctaw Nation. They contacted me regarding aviation. NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy] were eager to learn more. They were eager to work with sovereign nations and sovereign tribes to speed up the regulatory process for deploying aviation opportunities in a rural setting. The tribe contracted with me to write a report on regulatory horizons, business, and marketing.
How do you manage interjurisdictional relationships on such a huge reservation?
We were re-recognized under the McGirt decision; the reservation was never disestablished by Congress. We operate in a very interjurisdictional, very collaborative environment. Our law enforcement is cross-deputized with other departments in the region. Traditionally, it’s a very poor area, but as the tribe has come into its own, it has become a huge economic driver. The tribe takes care of the communities within its borders and steps in when the state government is unable to. They invest heavily in infrastructure. One of the reason that we’ve had such good interactions with the community is that the tribe is highly respected.
You worked incredibly hard to involve your community before you launched your program, and as a result you have a high level of community support. What lessons did you learn about community outreach that could be useful for peers?
When we got this program, it had credibility with the community because the tribe was behind it. We were not getting the feedback that I anticipated. We anticipated that we would focus heavily on privacy and concerns. When we started the town hall meetings, people just wanted to know how soon drone deliveries could happen. We had to ask them for their concerns. In fact, it was a very productive conversation because the concerns were very rational.
What we notice is that drones invoke a discomfort that people have trouble describing accurately. We would go out and fly at different altitude. First, we would ask people to guess the altitude and nobody could guess it accurately. So then we’d show them this is what two hundred feet looks like, this is what one hundred feet looks like. We’d start at three or four hundred feet and start bringing it down and ask when people would be bothered. Typically, it’s around two hundred feet when hands start going up. What I learned from that is when people say that they are worried about privacy, what they are really worried about proximity. Turns out that people don’t like what looks like a large tarantula hovering in the air. If you focus on privacy, you may be addressing the wrong issue; the issue may be proximity.
People were very realistic and informed on what can happen and what can be done. In fact, there was disappointment because everyone wanted to use drones for contactless delivery or COVID-related services and the regulatory systems were not advanced enough to do it.
You use your drones for public safety in ways that are unique to your jurisdiction. How have you been able to use them with such a dispersed and rural population?
We use drones for public safety and emergency response. We’ve never used them to collect evidence or anything like that. We had tornadoes coming in during the IPP and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] was able to use our drone data. The community used the footage to assess damage and it was very popular. We use them in search and rescue operations.
In rural areas, we’re trying to bridge infrastructure gaps. Agriculture is in the top eight of the most dangerous professions in the United States. A lot of those injuries and deaths occur because people are moving around in remote areas and get hurt while moving around. We can use drones to do those things that increase productivity or yield but also improve worker safety. Long-line infrastructure inspection is really helpful. In an area like ours, we have a lot of outdated roads. If we can minimize people moving along those roads, we can improve safety.
We’re looking at remote delivery for food and pharmacy because we have a lot of elderly members who live remotely. We provide a lot of delivery services that most governments don’t provide because it’s important to the tribe to support our members. We intentionally selected the rural areas for the IPP because that’s where the majority of our residents live.
Looking forward, what are your concerns and hopes for the program?
I appreciated Chula Vista (California) Police Department because they came and did a fantastic presentation on the Fourth Amendment considerations. They told us about their own minimum safe altitude to protect Fourth Amendment rights. I would like to see us work through this. We are in a gray area as regards the Fourth Amendment. If you ask people where should law enforcement be, can it be six feet away, you tend to get uniform responses of “No, that would not be good.” The Fourth Amendment is the easiest tool for us to get a boundary established. The courts might struggle with that because the legislative environment has not caught up to the technology.
Tribes have very long planning horizons. You don’t typically see forms of government that develop 100-year sustainment plans. That eye to the future is what it takes to responsibly engage and deploy new technology. I think that long horizon is very valuable to technology integrations. Hopefully we’ll see tribes involved with cities and suburbs as this environment evolves.
1.“UAS Integration Pilot Program,” Federal Aviation Administration, last modified December 10, 2019, https://www.faa.gov/uas/programs_partnerships/integration_pilot_program/.
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