CHOCTAW NATION — Chief Gary Batton said 44,000 acres of land set aside for the testing of unmanned aircraft within his tribe’s southeastern Oklahoma reservation is a new frontier for both the tribe and the state of Oklahoma.
“I always say, ‘who would of thought that 44,000 acres of remote area would be a great testing site for technology for the future of our unmanned aircraft systems,” Batton said Tuesday.
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma hosted a large crowd of state, tribal, and federal officials Tuesday at the tribe’s Emerging Aviation Technology Center’s test range between Stringtown and Daisy on State Highway 43 for a groundbreaking of the EATC’S operation center.
The three-story, 6,387 square-foot design includes office space, telemetry rooms, workrooms for both training and development, and drone maintenance and mechanical repairs, a conference lounge, an observation deck and more.
“I truly believe this is going to be the gateway for the future for us, from manufacturing to all the opportunities that we desperately need here for southeastern Oklahoma, and we believe this is the spark that’s going to grow our area,” Batton said.
The Choctaw Nation was the only tribal nation selected to participate in the Federal Aviation Administration’s initial Integrated Pilot Program for unmanned aircraft systems in 2017 before becoming the only tribal nation to lead the FAA’s BEYOND Program. The FAA in January gave the tribe’s program approval to conduct beyond visual line of sight flights.
Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell was in attendance for the groundbreaking and said investments from sovereigns and the state of Oklahoma is positioning the state to “truly become a top 10 state in the country when it comes to the aviation and defense industry jobs.”
“The number one industry, as we all know in the state is still oil and gas, and we are very thankful for that industry,” Pinnell said. “But because of groundbreakings like this, I truly believe over this next decade, our aviation aerospace industry could be the number one industry in the state of Oklahoma.”
Pinnell said without the help of the tribes, the state would not be able to build a “next generation workforce when it comes to jobs that are truly going to be needed.
“For this aviation industry, we wouldn’t be able to do it without the tribes,” Pinnell said, followed by loud applause. “The chief and I have been on a lot of stages over the last four or five years, cutting a whole lot of ribbons and turning dirt over, but that’s because when the state of Oklahoma partners with a sovereign, we can’t lose. We can’t lose.”
James Grimsley, the tribe’s executive director of Advanced Technology Initiatives, said as new technology emerges, it will be accomplishing things that benefit society at large.
“In 21st century United States of America, your ZIP code tells us a lot about you, tells a lot about your access to health care, your access to education, your access to economic opportunities, and one of the big things that we still have left to resolve in this country is access to X. I call it access to X, but it’s really a fundamental transportation problem,” Grimsley said. “We’re about to solve that with aviation and in our lifetimes. We’re going to see some amazing things.”
Grimsley said he hopes the work the tribe is doing now in the aviation industry will keep growing and influence future generations.
“My hope is that we’re not building a palace out here, we’re building a ladder,” Grimsley said. “And my hope is that generations that haven’t even been born yet will simply say, ‘I wish my grandparents were here to see what the Choctaw Nation is doing because they would be amazed.’
“I think that would be the biggest success we can have. And I’m very confident that’s going to happen.”