Community , Business

Plans for a possible Osage-owned Drone Port discussed at Commerce meeting

Photo caption: A 2017 aerial view of Skyway36, located four miles north of downtown Tulsa. Courtesy Photo/Crossland Construction Company Inc.

Drone Ports are such a new industry there is only one in upstate New York and another being built in Kentucky. The Osage Nation could own the third.

On Jan. 18, Brian Bigbie of INCOG, which stands for Indian Nations Council of Governments, addressed the Osage Congressional Commerce Committee with Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn about an opportunity for Skyway36 to become a Drone Port.

Bigbie said drone ports, which are specifically dedicated to Unmanned Aerial Systems, are in high demand as the technology for drones grows at a rapid rate. The Nation’s Skyway36, which was formerly known as the downtown airpark, has a 3,000 by 40-foot concrete runway, 16,000 square feet of vertical liftoff space, almost 2,300 square miles of Class G airspace, brand new parking lots, a hangar, office space and a variety of move-in ready buildings. Adjacent to the airpark is 400 acres of Nation-owned rural land and immediately south of the airpark is the Oakley Light Industrial Park, the Nation’s 40-acre light industry park.

“From an economic development standpoint, it’s what you want to see,” Bigbie said. “Existing assets to fulfill the market need. It could generate revenue for the Osage Nation, office space, leasing of the facility, anything the Osage Nation deems appropriate.”

Drone Ports have the potential to cater to private, government and military institutions, as well as provide research and development opportunities for small and large businesses, and secondary and post-secondary education, according to USA Drone Port.com.  

Bigbie said the facility and airstrip at Skyway36 need some renovation, but he didn’t think it would be costly. Last year he took officials from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to Skyway36 and “they were really blown away.”

“Of course, the investment priorities of EDA were considered, federal funding opportunities, they were thrilled,” he said. “I have been talking to them by phone. When they saw it, it took on a new life.”

Congressman Joe Tillman asked whether Bigbie could guarantee the Nation would get business if the money was spent to renovate Skyway36. Bigbie said he couldn’t guarantee business, but he said there was a competitive EDA grant available for $1.5 million and $2 million for projects like Skyway36.

Red Corn said the Nation is applying for the EDA grant.

Congresswoman Maria Whitehorn said during the Tzi-Zho Session in September, plans for Skyway36 included commercial business along with unmanned. Red Corn said the Nation would keep their options open as they continue discussions with the EDA.

“That entire industry and where its headed and how fast it’s going, is entirely dependent on the technology and what allows safe interaction between manned and unmanned,” Red Corn said. “We’re going to keep our options open until future technology tells us more.”

Mark Kirk, director for the Nation’s Information Services, said the Federal Aviation Administration is a factor as well.

“The FAA is all about safety. And right now, unmanned systems are not popular with the FAA and they’re taking it very slowly,” he said. “Right now, today, you can ride a drone to the airport in Dubai. The only thing that’s stopping [this in the United States] is the FAA, they’re going very slowly. The technology is already there and I’m sure the FAA would be thankful to see an airport that is dedicated to UAS.”

Congresswoman Brandy Lemon asked whether matching grant funds would be needed if the Nation won the grant. Bigbie said yes, but he added the more distressed the area, the more the EDA provides.

“They have rules toward tribal projects to give 100 percent.”