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Commentary: USA Drone Port Project launched in Knott, Perry counties through power of collaboration

By Ron Daley
Special to KyForward

Building on the community’s assets, strong partners, seed money leading to the idea, and an ambitious vision and plan, the USA Drone Port project was launched for Knott and Perry counties last week in Hazard.

The potential for the USA Drone Port: National Unmanned Robotic Research and Development Center goes beyond the jobs it will create as a drone research, testing, training, advanced manufacturing and education facility. The initiative can be model for our rural areas to learn how to work together.

The five originating partners have formed a board consisting of 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 partners have an ambitious plan to strengthen the local economy by engaging national and international robotic manufacturers while growing the talent density in high tech careers related to drones and robotics in the region. The partners echoed in a recent planning meeting that this is a “WE” project and not just an “I” one.

The project demonstrates the value of seed money provided by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The genesis of the project idea came through an ARC grant awarded to KVEC to create the Appalachian Innovations Collaborative (AIC) in 2015.

Drone Port partners celebrate(L-R), Dr. Jeff Hawkins, executive director of KVEC, Hank Spaulding of Wendell For Airport Board, Knott County Judge-Executive Zack Weinberg, and Perry County Judge-Executive Scotty Alexander. Not pictured, HCTC President Dr. Jennifer Lindon.

The KVEC team used the grant to work with 15 counties tying education to community and economic growth in order to prepare them for the New Economy.

As a result of the grant, the need for the Appalachian Technology Initiative (ATI) developed by Dr. Paul Green at KVEC which the ARC funded in the fall of 2016 to create innovation clusters and career pathways in high tech careers including aerospace and aviation for K-12 students. As a part of this grant, career possibilities in the drone and robotic industries were explored for students.

The need for a drone testing port was discussed in conversations during the Kentucky Aerospace Industry Consortia meeting at the Morehead State Aerospace Center. Chris Stiles of Unmanned Services, Inc. offered technical assistance, advice, and encouragement. Perry County Judge-Executive Scotty Alexander and Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC) immediately embraced the project. The chairman of the Wendell Ford Airport board became a part of the early planning.

As land options opened on the Knott and Perry County border, the Knott County Judge-Executive Zack Weinberg joined the partnership.

The project builds on the assets of Kentucky and the region. Kentucky is the second largest exporter of aerospace products. The site is ideally located to satisfy Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) guidelines and to have the available open airspace. The Wendell Ford Regional Airport in Hazard is a critical partner by providing opportunities for clients to fly in for testing.

The proposed port will have a 3,500 feet plus runaway capable of landing fixed wing aircraft (drones) and circular pads for smaller drones. The port will house facilities for inventors, technicians, students, and manufacturers to work, fly, drive, test, and rebuild unmanned and other products.

HCTC President Dr. Jennifer Lindon offered an additional level of commitment naming HCTC staff member Bart Massey to lead the project on behalf of the Drone Port Board. Massey, a licensed drone pilot, has been providing leadership for the project and is working with HCTC and KVEC team to develop curriculum.

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.

Education and training will be a key to develop the talent density in the drone and robotics field for the anticipated jobs while spurring entrepreneurism in the field creating new jobs. USA Drone Port’s Advisory Council, which consists of the higher education partners, business leaders in the field, the KY Department of Aviation, economic development experts, will be a key to ensure career development and opportunities are available for local citizens.

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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