For a region hit hard by the decline of the coal industry, the cooperative’s effort is seen as an important step toward replacing lost jobs. In 2016, Kentucky saw its lowest coal-production rate since 1934, in part because of competition from cheaper natural gas alternatives and higher operating costs.
At the same time, thousands of drone-related jobs are projected to be added to the nation’s economy over the next few years, and training and business incubator programs like the cooperative’s have popped up around the country. Schools are also beginning to experiment with integrating the technology in the classroom, said Laura Ziegler, the chair of the Department of Educational Technology at New Jersey City University.
Some New Jersey educators have worked drones into lessons about longitude and latitude, while others have used them to demonstrate vocabulary words in foreign languages. In Atlanta, schools included a drone competition as part of a robotics curriculum.
“There are a lot of different ways you can use drones [in education],” said Ziegler, who in coordination with the International Society for Technology in Education recently published a book called Drones in Education.
The Kentucky cooperative began experimenting with aviation training about two years ago, helping nine school districts develop high-school aviation and aerospace courses, and giving them flight simulators and drone kits. About 150 students took the classes this past school year.
In Haridas Chandran’s aerospace class, for example, students learned to build wind tunnels out of wooden planks and then used them to test how air currents support flying machines. The kids cemented their newfound aviation knowledge with a trip to a local airport to see airplanes in action. Not surprisingly, Chandran’s students also mastered the science of building and flying drones.
“I found they got very interested in drones,” said Chandran, who was thrilled that two of his students won first place in the cooperative’s drone race.
The cooperative hopes to expand the program with a four-year aviation and aerospace curriculum for high-school students. They would graduate with the necessary knowledge to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 test, which is required for becoming a licensed commercial-drone operator.
On a larger scale, there’s USA Drone Port, a proposed facility with a 3,500-foot-long runway and an indoor testing lab with classrooms. The cooperative hopes to build the complex on a remote mountaintop that had been severed for mining oil and has little productive use, Green said. The project will likely take about two years to complete, and the cooperative plans to fundraise and solicit grants to cover the estimated $25-million cost.
Drones are already widely used in the U.S. to capture aerial footage for real-estate promotions, collect data for farmers, help in search and rescue missions, and create 3D maps for architects and construction firms. Elsewhere in the world, drones are being used to deliver products to consumers—a practice that the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said the retail giant plans to implement.