Can Building a Drone Industry Lift Up This County in Virginia’s Coal Country?

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A court official spearheading an effort to attract unmanned aerial vehicle companies to Wise County thinks so. “Innovation can come from the strangest of places,” he said.

As with other parts of Appalachia, a downturn in the coal industry has hit hard in Wise County, Virginia.

Coal has long been at the economic core of this largely rural jurisdiction, which has about 40,000 residents and is located in the southwest part of the state, on the border with Kentucky. But, during the last decade, the mining sector there has eroded, and with it jobs and earnings.

“There’s not many mines left in Wise County,” said Harry Childress, president of Virginia Coal & Energy Alliance, Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes the coal industry. Driving the downturn, according to Childress, is a mix of market forces and tougher federal regulations. When it comes to the effect on the area’s economy, he said: “It's a tremendous hole to fill.”

Robert Adkins, chairman of the Wise County Board of Supervisors, echoed that view. “It's absolutely destroyed us,” he said of the deterioration in the county’s coal sector.

It’s against this backdrop that a local court official is fighting to bring new commercial development in Wise. His efforts are focused on an emerging technology: aerial drones.

“It’s a little unique for central Appalachia,” Jack Kennedy, clerk of the Wise County and City of Norton Circuit Court, said during a recent interview with Route Fifty, as he discussed his quest to establish the county as a locus for the unmanned aerial vehicle industry, an effort that began about three or four years ago. He added: “Innovation can come from the strangest of places.”

‘A Good Place For Aerial-Type Work’

Wise attracted attention last July, when it became the site of the first Federal Aviation Administration-approved unmanned aerial vehicle delivery in the U.S. A six-rotor drone copter, operated by the start-up company Flirtey Inc., flew from Lonesome Pine Airport and dropped off medical supplies at an annual, outdoor health clinic about seven-tenths of a mile away.

Kennedy believes the county’s sparsely populated lands provide an ideal testbed for flights like these.

The county is roughly 400 square miles. Over half of its real estate, Kennedy estimated, consists of the Jefferson National Forest, an expanse of hardwood and conifer trees covering rugged hillsides and mountains. About another quarter of the county, he said, is mining land.

Using drones for applications like cargo delivery, Kennedy noted, “will most likely not be perfected in Washington, D.C., or New York City, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco,” because there are simply too many people in those places for the aircraft to be safely, and easily tested.

While no unmanned aerial vehicle companies have located in Wise County yet, Kennedy said at least a half dozen are in active talks with local officials.

Avery Brown leads strategic marketing and business development for Drone Airspace Management, or DAM. Headquartered near Washington, D.C., the firm assists companies breaking into, or expanding within, the unmanned aerial vehicle sector.

“It is a good place for aerial-type work,” he said of Wise. “There's a lot of room to do testing."

But the county has other assets as well, according to Brown: a lack of red tape; a single point of contact for drone-related ventures, in the form of the nonprofit Fly Wisely Accelerator Corp., which Kennedy helped start earlier this year; recently launched community college courses focused on the aircraft; and skilled coal industry employees, like electricians and engineers.

"You can see that they're really actively developing a lot of resources," Brown added.

The Fly Wisely Accelerator, Kennedy said, is meant to provide a venue for unmanned aerial vehicle businesses, academic institutions and government to collaborate.

One company DAM has worked with is Aurora Flight Sciences, which is based in the northern Virginia city of Manassas, and has discussed Wise County as a possible testing location for a Cessna-sized aircraft known as the Centaur, which is capable of flying without a pilot.

"There's a big future for the large UAVs," Brown said of aerial vehicles like the Centaur.

These aircraft, he explained, can fly long distances, for up to 12 to 24 hours. And when equipped with sensors and high resolution cameras, they can carry out a range of activities, such as inspecting roadways or power lines, surveying coastline or mining land, or monitoring conditions during or after natural disasters, like floods.

Testing in Wise, Brown noted, could lead companies to put down deeper roots. “Where you're testing and constantly developing,” he said, “is where you're going to base your business.”

‘We Have a Chance’

Building a suitable workforce for unmanned aerial vehicle businesses is a crucial step toward attracting the companies to the county, in Kennedy’s view. To this end, Mountain Empire Community College, in Big Stone Gap, a town located in Wise, now offers drone courses.

One is an introductory class. It attracted 17 students the first time it was held and 16 the second. In addition to covering topics like basic flight principles and drone safety, students build and fly quadcopters during the course. A second class is meant to help prepare students for becoming drone pilots. It’s been offered once and a dozen people enrolled. And a third course, which will be held for the first time this fall, will deal specifically with fixed-wing drone aircraft.

Fred Coeburn, a computer networking instructor at the college for 22 years, who was previously in the Air Force, has been teaching the drone classes at Mountain Empire. Coeburn said Kennedy attends the same church as the college’s president, Scott Hamilton. One day after church, he said, Kennedy approached Hamilton with the idea of offering drone courses.

"When Jack started this whole thing, it's like, 'there's no jobs, Jack.' That's the first thing I told him,” Coeburn said. “Why would I train somebody to be unemployed?”

“But he had the point,” he added, “this is a nascent industry and if you don't have employees, the jobs will never come.”

A mix of students have taken the courses so far.

Students in one of the drone classes now offered at Mountain Empire Community College. (Photo courtesy Fred Coeburn)

The oldest was in their 70s, the youngest 17. Some are college students. But on average, Coeburn said, they’re in their mid-30s and have other jobs or small businesses.

A student flies a drone during a class at Mountain Empire Community College. (Photo courtesy Fred Coeburn)

Among them have been emergency responders, contractors looking to use drones to inspect roofs or gutters, farmers who might fly the aerial vehicles to get a birdseye view of fields, and real estate professionals interested in recording images of for-sale properties.

“Most everyone who has taken my course already had a job,” Coeburn said.

Right now, he explained, it’s too soon for someone to take the classes and make a living in the drone business.

But, Coeburn pointed out, the region’s complex terrain makes drones an attractive option for organizations such as emergency response agencies and utilities that need to inspect infrastructure. A mountain might require a 50-mile trip to drive around, but it could be possible to fly a drone across it in a distance of just one mile.

“The power company is interested, the railroad companies are interested,” Coeburn said, “the internet service providers.”

There could be opportunities to use drones for mining land reclamation projects that will be carried out in the area as well.

"I actually think, maybe this time, Jack was right,” Coeburn added. “We have a chance.”

‘Long and Arduous Effort’

For now, however, the county’s fortunes remain badly bruised by the coal industry’s decline. Coal mining is deeply intertwined with not only the economy, but also the identity and history of Wise County, with the industry’s activities there dating back generations to the late 1800s.

“Deeds were made and filed for record for lands, coal property and timber properties, and such an industrial boom had started, that deeds were coming into the clerk’s office, 50, 100, and 200 or more at a time,” Charles A. Johnson wrote in his 1938 book “A Narrative History of Wise County, Virginia,” describing the circumstances in 1886, near the time railroads reached the county. A few years later, towns there, he wrote, “were springing up almost like mushrooms.”

These days, nine mines are actively producing coal in the county, according to a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Six of them are controlled by two companies, Humphreys Enterprises and Revelation Energy. U.S. Energy Information Administration figures show that 45 mines were operational in Wise during 2007.

Hundreds of abandoned mining sites, meanwhile, are scattered throughout the county and surrounding parts of southwest Virginia coal country.

The unemployment rate in Wise County in May was a non-seasonably adjusted 7.6 percent. Virginia's statewide rate for the month was less than half that level at 3.6 percent. Wages from mining in the county last year, excluding those tied to oil and gas production, were about one-quarter what they were in 2001, after adjusting for inflation into 2015 dollars, falling to around $33 million from just over $136 million, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

This chart shows inflation adjusted wages in the mining sector, excluding oil and gas-related wages in Wise County. All amounts were converted into 2015 dollars using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chart: Bill Lucia, Route Fifty)

During that same timespan, the number of employees in the county’s mining sector dropped as well, to a preliminarily estimated 562 last year, from 2,216 in 2001, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures also show. This contributed to a considerable dent in Wise’s overall employment. The total number of employees was about 12,200 in 2015, off from a peak of 15,893 in 2011.

This chart shows the total number of employees in Wise County, and the number in the mining sector, excluding oil and gas-related jobs. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chart: Bill Lucia, Route Fifty)

And the jobs that have been lost in mining are not the sort that are easily replaceable in rural America. According to Childress, of the Virginia Coal & Energy Alliance, many of them pay well—commonly around $85,000 per year. Bureau of Labor Statistics seem to align with his claim. In 2014, average annual coal mining pay in Wise County was reported as $66,266.

Kennedy, who is 60, harbors no illusions that drones can somehow quickly fill the economic void coal is leaving behind in Wise. “It is not going to be a tremendous boon overnight,” he said. “It is going to be a long and arduous effort.” Why is it an effort he has decided to take on?

Asked that, he recalls that when he was 16, he watched Apollo 14 take off from Kennedy Space Center, east of Orlando, Florida. “I have always had an affinity for commercial space flight,” he said. But there was something else that prompted him to take action: “The realization that I'm seeing my community dying around me and I need to do something about it.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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