Former Mayor Dewey Bartlett signed a memorandum of understanding last year with a North Carolina company that would make Tulsa a testing ground for the use of drones in urban settings. The program never took off because Bartlett lost his bid to serve a third term in office. Photo provided by

Former Mayor Dewey Bartlett wasn’t considered the hippest guy in town. Maybe he should have let folks know about his plan to get drones flying through the skies of Tulsa.

It almost happened. The city almost became a testing ground for the use of unmanned aircraft systems in urban settings. But the idea crashed last summer along with Bartlett’s political fortunes.

When Bartlett lost his bid for a third term, a year’s worth of work on the project — including a signed memorandum of understanding with PrecisionHawk, a North Carolina tech company, a trip to South By Southwest, and letters to the Federal Aviation Administration — was lost amid the upheaval of an administration on its way out the door.

The Bartlett administration never told incoming Mayor G.T. Bynum about the project.

“There were so many things that we had to take care of,” said Bartlett’s former chief of staff, Jarred Brejcha. “We just never got around to handing this off, but I don’t think it’s too late. If this thing is handed off, I still think it holds tremendous potential for Tulsa.”

So does the Bynum administration. Deputy Mayor Michael Junk said Friday that an official from PrecisionHawk called Bynum shortly after he was elected in June but that the parties have not spoken since.

“We’re in the middle of an agreement, with a change of administrations, and it just takes a little while,” Junk said.

Junk added that he believes “there is some real merit behind the program.”

Brejcha, who spearheaded the effort, said city officials believed that by working side-by-side with a drone company to improve its technology, the city could gain a competitive advantage over other communities seeking entry into the market and reap the economic benefits that are sure to come from the growing technology.

Bartlett signed a memorandum of understanding with PrecisionHawk to do just that, and the company invited Brejcha and other city officials to last year’s South By Southwest conference to attend a panel discussion on drone technology.

A representative from PrecisionHawk, along with representatives of Intel, Amazon and the Federal Aviation Agency participated in the panel discussion, Brejcha said.

“They (PrecisionHawk) wanted to make Tulsa a city where they can do urban testing,” he said. “We wanted to give them a Tulsa site, and even multiple sites.”

Brejcha added: “What we wanted to do was essentially make highways in the sky and explore ways we can make commercial drone operation viable and useful.”

Bartlett wrote a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asking the FAA to accept the data produced through the partnership for use in promulgating rules and regulations for drone use. The FAA wrote back thanking the mayor for the city’s work.

The former mayor also wrote Huerta to recommend that PrecisionHawk CEO Bob Young be named to the Drone Advisory Council.

“We were working to develop a Tulsa template on how cities would react and allow the use of drones in the city for whatever purpose and for the city to use that template to regulate in a safe way the use (of drones) in the city,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said he believes the partnership would have led to many economic development opportunities for Tulsa.

“We just wanted to be the city that was used as a way to really find out how and with what methods (drones) could be used,” Bartlett said.

Former Mayor Dewey Bartlett gives his seventh and final State of the City address last year at Cox Business Center. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

The MOU — which city officials have yet to find a signed copy of — includes a provision allowing PrecisionHawk the use of the city’s supercomputer to process data.

“What we wanted to do was work with the drone industry on refining their technology, making it respectful of privacy, safety and property rights,” Brejcha said. “The goal was to inform the FAA and other national policy-making bodies of the results of our findings.

“Ultimately, what we would like to do is prove the commercial viability of drone technology in an urban environment.”

The proposed partnership is laid out in the single-page memorandum of understanding, which calls for the city and PrecisionHawk to “agree to a relationship of reciprocity while using, testing and troubleshooting the LATAS system in agreed-upon portions of Tulsa’s urban environment.”

The Low Altitude Traffic and Airspace Safety system is a network of drones used to map out an area and provide drone users with important data, including the altitude, location and speed of other drones within an airspace with the goal of making the skies safer.

The LATAS system could also be used by airports to monitor and communicate with drones.

The city’s agreement with PrecisionHawk calls for the city to assist the company in using the LATAS system to test beyond line-of-sight, artificially intelligent and autonomous drone flights.

As part of the MOU, PrecisionHawk agreed that promotion of the LATAS system would include a description of the technology as having been “Proven in Tulsa.”

The kind of public/private cooperation outlined in the city’s MOU is already happening in other communities, where companies like Amazon, Google and Intel are testing their products, Brejcha said.

“Those places are going to be ahead of everybody else because they are embracing that technology,” Brejcha said.

Brejcha believes it’s no longer a question of whether or not drone technology will be used in cities, but when?

“We wanted to be part of it, and we thought we could be a good example and help sort some of the more troubling issues related to drones,” he said.

As a first step in that process, the city agreed in principle to allow PrecisionHawk to use Cousins Park to begin testing, with the understanding that the company would eventually move into denser, more heavily populated areas.

The City Attorney’s Office was asked to come up with an ordinance to permit the commercial use of drones at parks. And Tulsa International Airport officials sent a letter to the FAA saying the airport supported the city’s work with PrecisionHawk.

Then came June 28.

That was the day Bynum ruined Bartlett’s plan for a third term, defeating him soundly in the nonpartisan mayoral primary and plunging the mayor into an unprecedented five months of lame duck status.

When Bartlett crashed, so did the drone idea.

“Ultimately, the election had a big impact because at that point, we only had so much time,” Brejcha said.

Bartlett said he and other city officials chose to keep their work on the MOU quiet because the process was fluid and they did not want to tip off other communities about the opportunity.

“This is not just pie in the sky stuff, it’s the real deal,” Bartlett said.

A deal, after many missed signals, that may actually happen.

“We are very excited to connect with the new administration to explore how PrecisionHawk technology can provide citizens of Tulsa with safety services while flying drones,” Lei Reich, PrecisionHawk’s VP of marketing and communications, said in an email Friday.