Choctaw Nation Announced as a Designated Drone Facility
Drone landing at hospital concept illustration

Three years ago, the President of the United States instituted the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP), a three-year program to allow UAS operations in the National Airspace System (NAS). Under the IPP, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tapped several state, local and tribal governments to assist in the development of safe integration. The Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma was selected by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao as one of nine sites to conduct research.

Those nine IPP lead participants accomplished many achievements under the IPP, and the FAA shared the relevant data and lessons learned with the appropriate policymakers and regulatory teams within the FAA and DOT to inform regulations, policy, and guidance. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said, "The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma reaped a direct economic benefit by using drones to conduct inspections of pecan trees and was able to determine that seemingly diseased trees had healthy crops in their upper levels. They improved the crop yield for those trees by 200 percent."

The FAA concluded the IPP on October 25, 2020 as mandated by statute; and decided to continue the partnerships and progress it made under the IPP to continue to address remaining challenges. The remaining trials of UAS integration will be explored through a new program called BEYOND.

Eight of the nine participants who were selected for IPP will participate in the new BEYOND program, including:

  • Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority of Virginia
  • Kansas Department of Transportation
  • Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation
  • North Dakota Department of Transportation
  • City of Reno, Nevada
  • University of Alaska-Fairbanks

CNO is the only participant working with the Volpe Center on testing acoustics for UAS.


The program will focus on operating under established rules rather than waivers, collecting data to develop performance-based standards, collecting and addressing community feedback and understanding the societal and economic benefits, and to streamline the approval processes for UAS integration.

Some of the challenges will involve:

  • 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

  • Focusing on community engagement efforts to collect, analyze and address community concerns

  • Improving communications with local, state and tribal jurisdictions

  • Addressing security and privacy risks

  • Accelerating the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations

The CNO is the first Native American Tribal Government to be granted a Public Aircraft Operations (PAO) Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA. Prior to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, federal law did not permit tribes to operate a public aircraft for governmental or public service under the rules of a PAO.

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton

"The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is very happy with our continued collaboration with the FAA and our partners," states Chief Gary Batton. "We believe this reflects very well on our continued leadership in emerging technologies and our efforts to identify and grow economic opportunities for our region. We realize that this technology has the potential to change our daily lives in many positive ways."

CNO plans to use the Public Aircraft Operations Certificate of Authorization for aeronautical research and public services within 10.5 counties of their tribal boundaries in Southeast Oklahoma. Possible areas of interest are: emergency services such as search and rescue, firefighting support, post-damage assessment from natural disasters, package deliveries, pipeline and powerline inspection, flood damage assessment, 911 call responses and even cattle counts to name a few. The data from these UAS flights has informed ongoing rulemaking, policy and guidance, and will continue to support future efforts.

James Grimsley, Executive Director of Advanced Technology Initiatives of Choctaw Nation’s Division of Strategic Development

"The Choctaw Nation continues to expand our involvement in emerging aviation technology and we appreciate our strong working relationship with the FAA," said James Grimsley, Executive Director of Advanced Technology Initiatives of Choctaw Nation’s Division of Strategic Development. He states, "As we continue to foster innovation and utilize new technology in today’s world, we hope to better serve our tribal citizens, customers and employees."

The CNO team will continue to collaborate with Oklahoma State University to conduct Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) weather research focused on improving the understanding of weather and winds at low altitude. The aim is to improve safety for Unmanned Aircraft systems (UAS) flying in Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) operations. The challenge the team is addressing will have an impact across a wide range of aircraft, not only helping advance the integration of drones and urban air taxis into the national airspace, but also increasing the safety of air transportation and airport operations for all aircraft from airliners and general aviation aircraft.

The Choctaw Nation spans across a wide area of the southeastern corner of Oklahoma
Closer view of Choctaw Nation Territory

The Choctaw Nation is the third largest Indian Nation in the United States, with nearly 200,000 tribal members and more than 10,000 employees. The first tribe over the Trail of Tears, the history boundaries are in the southeast corner of Oklahoma. Choctaw Nation’s vision, "Living out the Chahta Spirit of faith, family and culture" is evident as it continues to focus on providing opportunities for growth and prosperity. CNO has become a leader in emerging aviation technologies, working with other organizations such as Bell Flight, Intel Corp., AiRXOS (part of GE Aviation), Noble Research Institute, Oklahoma State University, Public Service Company of Oklahoma, Iris Automation and the University of Oklahoma.

In an effort to bridge infrastructure gaps, the Choctaw Nation is looking at ways to improve life in rural areas. Agriculture is one of the top eight most dangerous professions in the U.S. and as a result, a lot of deaths occur in remote areas. Drone technology can improve safety by quickly finding people who need help without having to navigate poorly maintained roads. Drones will also be used for remote delivery of food and pharmacy, since many tribal members are elderly and live away from populated areas.

Choctaw Nation will be working with Bell in the development of Autonomous Pod Transport (NEXUS)

"The Choctaw Nation is a significant contributor to the State of Oklahoma," declared Dr. Kyle Dean, Economist for the Center for Native American and Urban Studies at Oklahoma City University, "and their $2.4 billion impact is vital in counties in southeastern Oklahoma." CNO established an agreement with Bell to begin testing some of Bell’s mobility systems, like the Bell Autonomous Pod Transport and the Bell Nexus on a test site location in rural southeastern Oklahoma.

James Grimsley states, "We look forward to participating in the FAA BEYOND program, and helping the U.S. remain globally competitive in emerging aviation technology fields."

More information about the Choctaw Nation, its culture, heritage and traditions.

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