Earlier this year, the first official test flights of unmanned aerial systems (“UAS”), also referred to as drones, were held at Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. The test flights were a long-time coming and represent an innovative way for the Tribe to attract economic interest by using little more than its own airspace. Warm Springs took the air above its reservation, colored it with a special designation that allows for a rare use—testing drones—and hopes that the simple equation will create a destination site for aeronautic companies and enthusiasts.
The Warm Springs Indian Reservation is one of three test ranges in Oregon and one of only six test ranges in the United States approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (the “FAA”) for testing unmanned vehicle systems. Warm Springs is the only Indian reservation with an FAA approved drone testing range. Warm Springs is banking on the rarity of the testing areas for drones to create a sort of destination industry for the reservation, which will attract not just the aerial testing capabilities, but also the ability for companies to meet, design, redesign and perhaps even manufacture drones all adjacent to the testing location. These uses should bring rental and use fees for the Tribal economy.
The timing could not be better. Drones are no longer just for military applications such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, communications, battle management, electronic warfare and missile defense. There is enormous potential for the non-military uses of drones including aerial photography and videography for the motion picture and real estate industries, farming, monitoring and fighting wildfires, performing search and rescue operations, conducting law enforcement operations, monitoring and forecasting the weather, monitoring and managing fish and wildlife, monitoring floods and traffic, mapping and surveying, inspecting infrastructure, delivering packages and much more. However, designing and testing new drones has been a significant hurdle for the industry.
The Tribe’s effort began when, in 2012, President Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, which requires the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (drones) into national air space. The FAA is understandably cautious about allowing drones into national air space, seeing conflicts with manned aircraft as just one of the hazards. However, given the mandate to begin the integration, the FAA needed to create a very controlled (and limited) method to move the technology to a domestic use. Limiting testing sites was the first step in this effort.
Warm Springs saw the opportunity that limited testing zones could provide and immediately sought certification. However, the tribe was told that it was not considered a public entity under the Act and was not eligible for a test range. Undeterred in its efforts, the tribe partnered with the states of Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii, Oregon State University and the University of Alaska to submit their proposal for test ranges as part of a larger system that extends through Alaska, Oregon and Hawaii. In December, 2013, the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex was approved by the FAA which included approval of the test range on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation proposed by the partnership of the states of Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii and the Warm Springs tribal government. Research conducted at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation test site will help the FAA determine the rules and regulations for operation of drones and how to safely integrate them into national airspace.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community, recently stated that the demand for developing drone technology is significant and growing. The Association estimates that during the first decade after UAS integration, the industry would create over 100,000 jobs and more than $82 billion in economic impact. By lending these companies the use of their air space for testing, and a safe harbor for testing and design, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are positioned to ride this business current into a significant self-made economic engine.
Sandra is a member of the Native American Practice Group, Co-Chair of the Aviation Practice Group and a member of the State Bar of California – Business Law Section. Connect with Sandra at firstname.lastname@example.org and 619.515.3226.
Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at email@example.com and 619.515.3277.