Will Hazard become the nation’s hub for drone research and development?

USA Drone Port Preliminary design

Animation of the proposed USA Drone Port where companies could test their designs and train drone operators.
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Animation of the proposed USA Drone Port where companies could test their designs and train drone operators.

Local officials think the Hazard area could someday be a center for research, development and manufacturing of drones, bringing in high-tech jobs in a burgeoning field to help replace those lost in the dwindling coal industry.

A partnership of local governments and education institutions announced a plan Monday to build a complex called USA Drone Port in hopes of attracting companies to test and make unmanned robotic vehicles and train people to use them. Now they need $12 to $15 million to build it.

Supporters cited pluses the area has for drone research, including a good deal of relatively flat land left from surface mining; large, relatively unpopulated areas to fly over; and an available work force.

The area also has a lot of less heavily restricted airspace for testing drones, said Chris Stiles, a former Army drone operator who now operates a Lexington company called Unmanned Services Inc., which provides drone services for mapping, surveying and other uses.

Stile said there are six drone-testing sites in the country approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, but many companies test in other countries because of the cumbersome bureaucracy at the FAA sites.

Stiles, who has been advising on the project, said the proposed test site in Southeastern Kentucky would allow companies to be more nimble. A company could test a drone, print a new part for it on a 3-D printer if needed, and put it back in the air without having to get FAA approval for more tests, Stiles said.

Supporters think the project could draw national attention and use because there is not another one like it in the country.

“This is something that’s needed, not just here but in the U.S.,” Stiles said.

The test site would have a 3,500-foot runway for landing fixed-wing drones, circular pads for smaller drones and a five-story building where companies could test machines, even in unfavorable weather, said Bart Massey with Hazard Community and Technical College, operations manager on the project.

Supporters also envision a plant with 3-D printers and other equipment needed to work on unmanned vehicles that someone testing a drone could use for modifications and repairs.

Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander said it would cost an estimated $12 million to $15 million to build the drone port. The project might be built in phases, depending on available funding, he said.

Money for the project is not in place. The partners will seek money from a variety of sources, including federal grants and foundations, Alexander said.

He said his goal is to have the drone port done within 36 months.

No site has been chosen, but the partners are looking at former surface mines. Planners hope to put the port where the runway could be expanded if needed, Massey said.

The port could also offer access to test underwater robots at area lakes.

Board members on the project represent Perry and Knott counties; Hazard Community and Technical College; The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative; and the Wendell H. Ford Regional Airport in Perry County.

The education partners in the project could develop a pipeline of students to work at the port.

The hope is that in addition to using it for research and testing, makers of unmanned vehicles would set up manufacturing plants nearby.

“This could be a game-changer for Southeast Kentucky,” said Paul Green, with the educational cooperative. “It’s cutting-edge and it could really lead to a lot of economic benefit for our region.”

Michael Dowell, co-founder of Mobile Recon Systems in Lexington, said it’s realistic to think that manufacturers would cluster near the port. Companies are waiting for such a place, he said.

Supporters said the demand for the drone port would grow as uses increase for other unmanned vehicles, including driverless cars and unmanned cargo flights.

The global market for the unmanned aircraft industry is expected to grow from $11.3 billion in 2015 to $140 billion in 10 years, according to a news release about the project.

“We’re just now scratching the surface of drone use,” Dowell said.