Commentary: A leader in aerospace industry, Kentucky can be an important player in drone business

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By Ron Daley
Special to KyForward

A team of six eastern Kentuckians braved the new frontier of unmanned and robotic systems to announce ambitious plans for Kentucky to be a player in this emerging and exploding industry during the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Conference in Dallas, Texas last week.

The team unveiled their plans for the USA Drone Port: National Unmanned Robotic Research and Development Center for drone research, testing, training, advanced manufacturing and education in the Perry and Knott County area. The partners have an ambitious plan to strengthen the local economy engaging national and international robotic manufacturers while growing the talent density in high tech careers related to drones and robotics in the region.

Other states are making substantial investments in the unmanned systems industries as demonstrated by their presence in the AUVSI annual conference which serves more than 7,500 members from government organizations, industry and academia. The 10 states with pavilions at the conference were: Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. Oklahoma had a booth as well.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told conference attendees he is working to make autonomous technology research and development “a cornerstone of the commonwealth’s new economy.” He announced the creation of the Autonomous Systems Center of Excellence (Operated by the Center for Innovative Technology), ASCE will focus on “creating technology-based economic development strategies,” with Governor McAuliffe saying he would like to see Virginia become the “capital of automated vehicles.” The Virginia Tech Mid-Aviation Partnership has an FAA-designated UAS test site near Washington D.C.

Kentucky participants at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Conference in Dallas, Texas last week. Ron Daley and Bruce Parsons of KVEC, Bart Massey and Donna Roark of HCTC, and community member Shawn Adams. Not pictured Jacob Adams, UK student in engineering. (Photo Provided)

One of the premier state efforts is by North Dakota which is led by the University of North Dakota which offered the first unmanned systems bachelor degree program 2005 and by the ND Department of Commerce. It gained one of six FAA approved test sites (Norther Plains UAS Test Site) in 2013.

New York State is investing approximately $250 million in the unmanned systems industries.

Kentucky has the potential to become one of the top leaders in the unmanned systems industry. Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton helped organize and start the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortium with the goal to promote and grow the aerospace industry in Kentucky. Stewart Ditto II is the executive director of the consortium.

“Kentucky’s universities are also leading the way in many different fields in aviation and aerospace. The University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University all have well-known programs involved in aviation and aerospace,” Ditto wrote recently.

Ray Hagerman, president, Madisonville-Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation, praised the eastern Kentucky drone port initiative while meeting the team in Dallas saying, “Communities like yours and ours need to identify our niche to grow their economies. You are on the right track to create a bona fide Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved drone testing site in this growing, exemplar industry. We will need more sites in Kentucky. And, Kentucky desperately needs a booth at the next conference.”

Hagerman added, ““You are on the right track to have education as a critical component of the project in order educate and inform the public about the unlimited possibilities of economic development in this area. These include learning to fly, repairs, manufacturing, adapting to the new technologies, writing software, and various entrepreneurial opportunities. Entrepreneurism will be the key to Kentucky’s success.”

John Stevens, chief operations officer for SOAR Oregon praised the Kentucky effort, “We are thrilled with your prospects in rural Kentucky at UAS enterprises as we are with our prospects growing the economy and creating high paying jobs in Oregon. Our Pendleton site is located in a similar type community as yours which has the need of economic revitalization. Unmanned service manufacturers and others need a geographically close done test site and the location of your site away from commercial traffic and not being in a heavily populated area is ideal.”

Stevens works with the Oregon UAS Industry and Test Range Complex (3 sites) and part of Pan Pacific UAS Test range complex.

Eddie Compton, aerospace/defense industry liaison with the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education, lauded the educational component of the USA Drone Port in Kentucky. “We value what you intend to do to create educational and economic opportunities in your local area. There will be many job opportunities as this industry continues to grow. Aviation intrigues and excites young and old and your work to capture the imagination of the youth to spur them into unmanned and robotic fields will be valuable to them.

The Kentucky team reconnected with Benjamin Sears, Assistant Professor of Aviation at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio at the conference. Bart Massey of Hazard Community and Technical College, the Director of Operations USA Drone Port and Dr. Paul Green of the KY Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) toured Sinclair’s unmanned systems labs during the winter.

“I am so very excited about your work and plans and look forward to ways we can collaborate,” Dr. Sears said in front of the Sinclair Community College booth.

Massey said the conference reinforced the USA Drone Port regional planning group’s view that there is a need for the project and that it has tremendous potential to strengthen the local and state economy.

Dr. Green leads the KVEC’s Appalachian Technology Initiative (ATI), in part funded by the Appalachian Reginal Commission, creating career pathways in computer science, aviation, aerospace and drone technology. The KVEC drone laboratory will be open in early fall.

KVEC is one of five Kentucky community partners for the USA Drone Port. The partners include the Perry County and Knott County Judge-Executives; the President of Hazard Community and Technical College; the executive director of the KY Valley Educational Cooperative; and the chairman of the Wendell Ford Airport Board (Hazard).

The Unmanned Aircraft Industry global market was $11.3 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to $140 billion in the next 10 years. Local planners envision jobs created at the site, manufacturers spending dollars during their visits, manufacturers relocating satellite offices and entrepreneurial opportunities for local residents, housing, tourism and others.

“We are entering a period of rapid, unprecedented growth in the unmanned systems industry,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI at the beginning of the Dallas conference. “At XPONENTIAL, we have gathered the industry’s thought leaders, along with innovators across various vertical markets who have abundant experience leveraging the power of unmanned systems to revolutionize their sectors.

I am optimistic Kentucky will be a leader in this growth industry and provide many career pathways for our youth to remain in the Commonwealth. It will take the combined effort of our K-12 schools and higher education to train the workforce, our research universities to advance technologies, entrepreneurs and state groups supporting entrepreneurism and our state government to maximize the growth of unmanned systems industries in the Commonwealth.

Ron Daley is the strategic partner lead for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a consortium of 21 school districts in eastern Kentucky. He lives in Hazard, KY and his email is ron.daley@kctcs.edu

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