Can a drone port on a strip-mined mountaintop in Kentucky keep an ambitious student like Seth Hatfield from leaving his economically distressed hometown for good?
A co-op of rural school districts in the region—home to a long-declining coal industry—is betting on it.
The districts and other backers of constructing a $50 million complex where companies would design, build, and test drones and train people to operate them, say the region’s high schools would provide a strong pipeline of students to learn high-tech skills.
They hope to accomplish two feats in a region where, at 12.8 percent, the January unemployment rate was more than twice the national average: create jobs in the burgeoning high-tech field and entice the region’s brightest students back home after college with the promise of good jobs.
For Hatfield, a sophomore at Belfry High School in Pike County whose passions are video games and robots, it’s a thrilling prospect.
“I feel like this is a great opportunity for me, and I feel really lucky that all of this is happening in my area, close to my hometown,” said Hatfield, 16, whose grandfather was a coal miner.
The project, known as USA Drone Port, is still in its conceptual phase and is expected to be built near Hazard, in southeastern Kentucky. It would include a 3,500-foot runway for drones and other small autonomous aircrafts, as well as an indoor-testing facility for year-round work. There would be space for engineers to build, test, and perfect their inventions. Classroom space would be available for K-12 and college students to learn drone design and manufacturing and have job-shadowing and mentoring opportunities. The facility would have aquatic ponds to test small underwater vehicles—the kinds that might be used in search and rescue missions.
“We know [drone technology] is a growing area of employment opportunities, and the uses are only now being discovered,” said Jeff Hawkins, the executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, or KVEC—a collective of 21 rural districts with 50,000 students that covers an area roughly the size of Connecticut.
“It’s also a way for us to engage student-learners in a pathway that’s focused on drone design, testing, and use, that exposes them to high levels of mathematics, engineering, and physics, etcetera.”
Hawkins believes the education system is inextricably linked to the region’s economic future.
“Where the two intersect is the edu-economy,” he said. “That’s the sweet spot for us.”
The project grew out of discussions about postsecondary opportunities and regional economic development between educators at KVEC and officials from the state’s aerospace industry, said Paul Green, the director of KVEC’s Appalachian Technology Institute. The need for a facility for research and development of drone technology emerged over and over, Green said. The state has a growing aerospace industry and is second in the country in the export of aerospace products and parts, he said.
The southeastern Kentucky region has many features that make it a prime location for such a project, including thousands of acres of land and open space far enough away from population centers without being too remote, Green said.
While districts in the region have large numbers of students living in poverty—81 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals—they post average four-year graduation rates that are higher than the state’s average, Hawkins said. In 2016, KVEC’s graduation rate was 94.9 percent, while Kentucky’s statewide rate was 88.6 percent, Hawkins said. Steady growth in the graduation rate has been the result of expanding personalized learning, personalized professional development for educators, and expanding curricular options, particularly career tech-ed courses. The KVEC districts have also been building a stronger foundation for high-tech education, deploying more than $30 million in federal grants to expand courses in computer programming, computer science, coding, aeronautics, and aviation. Prior to the recent expansion, only two of KVEC’s 29 high schools offered computer science classes with coding, and only two had offerings related to aerospace engineering and aviation, Green said.
“Our programming is trying to expose kids to these new things,” Green said. “We are working to create potential economic opportunities with something like the drone port, where industry may say, ‘This is a great training facility. This is a great testing facility. It may behoove us to move our research and development center to this location.’ ”
The drone port dovetails with KVEC’s efforts to prepare students for jobs of the future and build multiple career pathways. This fall, KVEC plans to offer a new pathway in drone design and development. It will also emphasize entrepreneurship and creativity.
“The unique thing for me is how do we create an ecosystem that fuels both the K-12 education system and diversifies the economy, so that people can stay here and find gainful employment and create a vibrancy of life,” Hawkins said.
Odds for Success?
Revitalizing economically depressed regions is a tall order in any setting where manufacturing and industry jobs have disappeared, said Harry J. Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University in Washington. In many of those regions, residents who had the opportunity left permanently. Many who stayed behind have been out of the workforce for extended periods, often on long-term disability, Holzer said. And some of those areas are in the throes of the opioid epidemic. The eastern Kentucky region is home to several counties with some of the largest declines in life expectancy between 1980 and 2014, according to a recent report in JAMA Internal Medicine, a drop driven in part by poverty and lack of healthcare access. The opioid and prescription drug epidemic and an exodus of younger people have also played a role, Hawkins said.
But there are features in the region that companies may find attractive, such as cheaper land and lower taxes. Building a skilled workforce might also draw interest, and KVEC’s partnership with a local community college and the region’s relative proximity to Lexington, Ky., also “raise the odds of success,” he said. University of Kentucky economist Christopher Bollinger expressed caution.
There are major challenges to luring tech firms to areas where the labor force needed to support the industry does not yet exist, Bollinger said. And a lack of big-city amenities to attract a start-up labor force is also a barrier.
The new training for high-tech jobs in coding, engineering and aviation and entrepreneurship should continue whether the drone port gets built, he said. That kind of training and education can spur entrepreneurial activity and lead to economic revitalization.
“Fundamentally, I am always skeptical of ‘if you build it they will come’ ” he said. “But I am not skeptical that education is the key to economic growth. We see this all the time.”
The project is not intended to be exclusive to drone development, said Bart Massey, who works at Hazard Community and Technical College and will serve as the manager for the project. Robotics will also be central, and the complex’s final form will be driven by industry needs, he said.
So far, the board that would manage the drone port has received support from local county governments. A landowner has agreed to donate the property for the airstrip. Other property owners have also expressed their intention to donate more land if needed, Massey said. The organizers will need to raise private money, but they also hope to get financial assistance from the Appalachian Regional Commission and grants through the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, Massey said. The first phase is estimated to cost $15 million.
The entire project would take between 24 and 36 months to complete, but educators hope that students and businesses would be able to use portions of the facility as soon as fall 2018, Massey said.
Belfry High School students like Hatfield and his classmate Autumn Gibson see real promise to pursue a career close to home. Gibson, 15, whose early exposure to air shows fostered a love for airplanes, signed up for an early-morning aeronautic class when it was first offered. This semester, she and some classmates built a wind tunnel from scratch.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to get a head start on a possible career,” said Gibson, who plans to be an aviation technician and return to work at the regional airport.
Hatfield has already demonstrated a talent with drones. He recently won KVEC’s first-ever drone contest in which contestants had to pilot a drone in an enclosed space without crashing it.
The planned drone port gives him hope that his family’s Appalachian roots—which run deep in southeastern Kentucky—can remain.
“By the time I complete college,” he said, “there is bound to be something for me back home.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as In Kentucky Coal Country, New Tactics to Stem ‘Brain Drain’