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Drone industry in eastern Kentucky

Role reversal: Educators helping to create industry
Kentucky School Advocate
February 2018
By Mary Branham
Staff writer 
Keisha Wilson, 16, a junior at Knott Central High School, practices flying a drone at the Kentucky Valley Educational Co-op in Hazard.
The traditional thought about vocational education is this: Train students for the industry in the community.

“People often come to us as a region and say, you need to align the educational program to existing industry,” said Paul Green, Appalachian Technology Initiative lead for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative. “That’s good in Lexington, but in Knott County, there’s not much industry. We have to anticipate what could be an industry in Knott County.”

Green uses Knott County as an example of the KVEC region because that area could be the nexus of new career fields surrounding the drone industry in eastern Kentucky. KVEC is a partner in USA Drone Port, which has plans for a drone research facility on donated land at a former mountaintop mining site at the Knott/Perry county line.

USA Drone Port has applied to the federal government to become an FAA-designated drone test area; the region would be one of five such areas in the U.S., Green said.
Keisha Wilson, 16, a junior at Knott Central High School, practices flying a drone at the Kentucky Valley Educational Co-op in Hazard.

With those prospects in mind, KVEC is developing programs to expose students in participating school districts to potential jobs around that industry.

“We live in an area with low economic development, so I think it’s hard to imagine what’s possible until you experience it,” said Angela Thornsberry, who teaches science and aviation classes at Knott Central High School. “I think that’s the best thing about these classes.”

The KVEC program started with aerospace engineering and aviation; the co-op worked to align its program with the aviation programs at Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky universities, Green said. Many students are interested in learning to fly, but the high cost per flight hour is often prohibitive, he said. So KVEC started to focus on the drone component.
Knott Central student Colbie Napier tests the new virtual reality program at the Kentucky Valley Educational Co-op. What he is seeing through the headset is displayed on the screen behind him. KVEC is adding a VR program as another option for students.
If the region is successful in its application to become a drone test area, it will need a workforce that can do the jobs that come as a result. The goal is to create a four-year high school program to educate students on areas needed to pass the FAA test to become a licensed commercial drone operator. 
Knott Central student Colbie Napier tests the new virtual reality program at the Kentucky Valley Educational Co-op.
What he is seeing through the headset is displayed on the screen behind him. KVEC is adding a VR program as yet
another option for students with the hopes of creating new career pathways.

When Green grew up in eastern Kentucky, students had four career choices: doctor, lawyer, teacher or miner. With this new programming, KVEC is not only exposing students to a new world of opportunities, but it is also working to build interest in the industry and providing an educational pathway to success in those industries, he said.

“Can we create courses, units of study and pathways so kids can be ready for these emerging careers?” said Green.

The early answer appears to be, yes.
Participating districts Austin Heiston, 17, and Keisha Wilson, 16, both juniors at Knott Central, have landed on those pathways for very different reasons.

Heiston has always been interested in getting his pilot’s license. Wilson had always liked the idea of travel. They signed up for aviation courses at Knott Central during their freshman year and have continued with the program since. They both participated in a drone race at the local Sportsplex and learned a lot about aerodynamics and flight. 

Heiston plans to attend EKU for its aviation program. Wilson wants to be a flight nurse.

But the knowledge they’re gaining through the aviation and aerospace program, particularly the courses tied to drones, could open the door to many different careers, Thornsberry said. Drone operators could attach cameras and photograph properties for real estate companies or photograph outdoor weddings, she said. They could test new drones for companies like Amazon that want to use drones for delivery. Green said students could also train other drone pilots or work with cellphone companies to check cell towers or lines.

The possibilities for career potential are endless, Thornsberry said.

“(Students) are just figuring out they can have it as a field … they’re awakening to that reality,” she said.

While Heiston still likes the idea of flying planes versus drones, he said the classes “give me a better understanding to how everything works and will help my career going into that.”

And he concedes that if a career path opened in flying drones, he might be interested.

Wilson looks at the big picture of economic development in eastern Kentucky and sees drones flying through it.

“We really need all the jobs we can get,” she said. “(Drones) would definitely bring jobs to eastern Kentucky.”
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