An idea whose seed was planted by the Osage Nation about six years ago took root in a huge way on Sept. 2, when President Joe Biden announced that his administration was awarding $38.2 million to a coalition to create the Tulsa Regional Advanced Mobility Corridor.
At its most basic, Osage-centric level, that means the long-planned droneport and robotics hub at the Osage Nation’s Skyway36 – the former Tulsa Downtown Airpark – is poised to become a reality and a key part of a “super-region” for unmanned transportation systems.
The grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration will fund four projects under the TRAM coalition: A 114-nautical-mile Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLoS) flight corridor for drones that will stretch from Skyway36, over the Osage Nation Ranch and thence to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater; a Launchpad Research and Technology Center at OSU-Tulsa that will develop new technologies for unmanned aerial systems and other advanced mobility systems; training and education to build a skilled workforce in the field; and a new facility to treat more than 4 million gallons of wastewater at the Port of Tulsa in Inola so that acreage is “pad-ready” for high-tech transportation systems.
In addition to the Osage Nation’s business arm, Osage LLC, the coalition put together by the Indian Nations Council of Governments includes OSU, Tulsa Innovation Labs, Tulsa Ports, the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa Regional Chamber and PartnerTulsa – the latter being an amalgamated group of Tulsa economic development agencies dedicated to bettering that city’s future.
The Tulsa-Rogers County Port Authority is receiving $22.5 million from the grant for the improvements at the Port of Inola; OSU will receive $10.7 million ($8.5 million for the flight corridor and $5.2 million for a LaunchPad Research and Technology Center) and the Tulsa Community Foundation $2.9 million for workforce development.
Osage LLC is not receiving money from the grant Biden announced but is an active partner by contributing air and office space at Skyway, which itself received a separate $2.5 million grant last year to renovate the old airpark, said Candy Thomas, the director of grants management for the Osage Nation.
Jamey Jacob, the director of the Unmanned Systems Research Institute at OSU, said that the Osage Nation first reached out to OSU regarding the use of the downtown airpark about six years ago, with the idea of turning it into a testing ground for the new frontier in aerospace. He said that the airpark presented a unique opportunity because while it abuts Tulsa, it also abuts a vast amount of largely unpopulated land.
“When you’re sitting at Skyway and look to the northwest, you see nothing but open space, but when you turn around 180 degrees, you see downtown Tulsa,” Jacob said. “It’s a very stark urban divide.
“Plus, it’s right beyond the five-mile boundary from the Tulsa airport” that the Federal Aviation Administration requires as a buffer zone separating drones from manned commercial aviation.
The fact that the land to the northwest is largely unpopulated makes it quite safe from the perspective of the FAA, Jacob added: “You’re flying over cows, so it’s a very low-risk testing environment.”
During an online announcement with Biden on Aug. 2, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said that 529 applications were submitted for $1 billion in grants under the American Rescue Plan’s “Build Back Better Regional Challenge” to create jobs in clean energy, next-generation manufacturing and biotechnology.
“We got it down to 60 finalists, and from there we worked to get to 21 who are with us today,” she said, with 21 Zoom panels on display at The White House.
“If you are one of the 21, you were the cream of the crop. Your applications were fantastic.”
The Oklahoma projects, set to kick off in 2023, anticipate generating between 30,000 and 40,000 jobs within three years, which is equal to $3.5 billion to $5 billion in economic activity, according to the EDA.
Jacob said that OSU is at the cutting edge of drone technology and that the new world of unmanned flight and other forms of transportation will be upon us faster than most expect.
“Ten or 15 years ago, no one thought they needed a smartphone, now they are key to living in the modern world,” he said.
OSU occupies a unique niche in aerospace research because it has a “full suite of capabilities,” Jacob said, including aircraft design, propulsion, navigation systems and flight testing development platforms.
“There are things we do that no one else does,” he said.
Among the practical drone applications that will spring from OSU and the Skyway corridor for unmanned flight are systems for gathering weather data that will be able to discern much more detailed information than radar supplies now, for instance.
“Instead of being able to say, ‘Conditions are favorable for a tornado in this area,’ we’re going to be able to say, ‘You’re getting a tornado in an hour in this specific area,’” he said.
“It sounds like a cliché, but the sky is the limit in terms of what we can use this technology for.”
Drones will be used for almost anything energy related, too: Pipeline and electrical line inspections, oilfield pollution, solar farms and wind turbine inspection and evaluation of wind patterns in wind farm areas.
“Drones are really a boon to energy,” Jacob said.
They will also be used for emergency medicine and transport, as well as more prosaic package delivery and “tons of different applications,” he said.
In 2016, the Osage Nation had been poised to pursue another drone project at Skyway36. That project was to work with the FAA to establish safety rules and protocols for commercial Beyond Visual Line of Sight drone flights and study the impact of those flights.
The Osage Nation dropped out of that competition when it became apparent that the Choctaw Nation had been preordained to receive the award. The project, awarded in 2021, made the Choctaw Nation the first tribal government the FAA recognized as a public aircraft operator. It is called the Choctaw Nation BEYOND program and is in full swing on the Choctaw’s 44,600-acre Daisy Ranch north of Antlers.
The $38 million EDA grant, as it turns out, will ultimately pack a much bigger wallop. More money. More jobs. More cutting-edge technological advancements.
“This,” Jacob said, “is like the revenge of the Osage Nation.”