The Wildflower International team with its Silent Falcon Drone. (Photo by Eddie Moore, Albuquerque Journal)
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 “Infrastructure” print edition of Native Business Magazine.
There’s a reason that New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment, because sometimes magic happens. Just ask Governor Joseph Talachy of the Pojoaque Pueblo and Kimberly deCastro, owner of Wildflower International.
Looking to expand in an increasingly competitive but less lucrative federal IT contracting world, deCastro was seeking a related intrusive market sector that would allow her company to survive into the future. At the same time, Governor Talachy was brainstorming economic development opportunities that offered rewarding job prospects for its 482 enrolled members and surrounding community.
It was a marriage made in business heaven: Pojoaque’s almost 12,000 acres of real estate and highly varying and inaccessible topography, combined with Wildflower International’s partnership with Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS or drone) manufacturer Silent Falcon. Pojoaque needed the surveillance capability, and Wildflower needed to train drone pilots over more challenging and realistic terrain.
In this marriage, deCastro was the one to propose the partnership. She originally sought a deal to use the Pueblo’s Santa Fe Downs to train the 14-foot fixed wing span, solar-powered aircraft with a 4- to 8-hour flight-life close to Albuquerque. In exchange, Silent Falcon would train Tribal members as future drone pilots for federal contracts. Pojoaque would gain high-tech jobs in high demand, and Wildflower qualified pilots that would allow it to compete for federal contracts the Pueblo pilots would staff. Win-win. The Governor was all in.
However, they quickly ran into a wall of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Undeterred, and armed with Tribal sovereignty and a bent for self-determination on both sides, they looked at that four-by-six-mile piece of trust land the Pueblo inhabited as Plan B.
Within weeks of negotiating and getting Pueblo council buy-in, they reached an agreement for training that included assurance of compliance with the Pueblo’s cultural resource code and populated areas. They are about to get off the ground — literally — with only an FAA 107 Regulations site waiver holding them back while training begins.
“We’re not going to get the practice we need in a metropolitan area. The kind of training we need is really going to come from partnership with Native American Nations,” deCastro acknowledged.
And that can only work in Tribes’ favor. Wildflower is currently preparing to bid on a federal opportunity that requires 100 qualified drone pilots with top secret clearances, and it is looking at Pojoaque as the place to source those pilots.
“My sense is that the Pojoaque are a proud people who want to live on their land and fulfill skilled tech jobs from right where they live,” deCastro said.
They can get their four-day training class, pass the test, plus get their 50 flight hours right on the Pueblo, and Governor Talachy couldn’t be happier.
“I’m really pleased to be Wildflower’s partner, hopefully on other things in the future with them as well. The idea of having Tribal members train on these systems is very appealing. We are trying to get members to explore technical training in different areas, and we see cultivating future collaboration with Wildflower as part of that plan,” the Governor explained.
“Kim is a brilliant entrepreneur, thinks outside the box, and sees the future of data gathering, which is a huge revenue-rich growth area as well,” he added.
The timing couldn’t be better for getting into drones. A 2013 study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) concluded that precision agriculture and public safety will comprise 90 percent of the potential drone market. That translates into $82.1 billion in economic impact and nearly 104,000 jobs between 2015 and 2025. Other drone use comprises: wildfire mapping, disaster management, law enforcement, imaging, mapping, media coverage, environmental monitoring, gas and oil exploration, freight transport, and public safety, which the Pojoaque will be well-prepared for.
Drone use got a political push from the White House in October 2017, naming 10 selectees for its Integrated Pilot Program (IPP). The one Native American program member chosen was the Choctaw Nation, which is “expected to…foster a meaningful dialogue on the balance between local and national interests related to UAS integration, and provide actionable information to the [U.S. Department of Transportation] USDOT on expanded and universal integration of UAS into the National Airspace System.” It remains to be seen whether the government can keep up with the speed of a public-private partnership like the Pojoaque-Wildflower agreement.