Op-Ed

Aerospace can transform Eastern Kentucky’s economy

Knott County Judge-Executive Zach Combs Weinberg, seated, used a drone simulator April 24 at Hazard Community and Technical College. Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander is at right. They took part in announcing a plan to build a drone-testing site in the area.
Knott County Judge-Executive Zach Combs Weinberg, seated, used a drone simulator April 24 at Hazard Community and Technical College. Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander is at right. They took part in announcing a plan to build a drone-testing site in the area. bestep@herald-leader.com

Already the second-largest exporter of aerospace products in the United States, Kentucky’s aerospace sector is also rapidly growing in the eastern part of the state.

Last week in Hazard, local officials announced the new USA Drone Port: National Unmanned Robotic Research and Development Center has been established at Wendell Ford Airport. The site will have facilities for drone research, testing, training, advanced manufacturing and education.

The unmanned aircraft industry’s global market was $11.3 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to $140 billion in the next 10 years. Local planners envision jobs created at the site, manufacturers spending dollars during their visits, manufacturers relocating satellite offices and entrepreneurial opportunities for local residents, housing, tourism and others.

Already drone companies are hunting for what the USA Drone Port has to offer. Just last month, three Israeli drone companies visited central Appalachia looking for locations to expand research and develop new applications in the agribusiness sector.

The spectrum of commercial drone applications is enormous. Drones can help utility companies locate downed powerlines more quickly, assist firefighters in mapping forest fires in real time, help military and law enforcement find tunnels used for illicit activities, and deliver medicine to areas experiencing disease outbreaks without endangering human pilots.

In addition to a cutting-edge drone port, Eastern Kentucky is also home to a world-class space science center.

In Morehead last month, Ideafest Aerospace showcased the impressive Space Science Center at Morehead State University. NASA recently added MSU to its Deep Space Network, making it the only non-NASA asset in the world to have that honor. The connection to NASA and accumulation of space science expertise has positioned Morehead to attract research funding and top-tier talent.

With venture capitalists, private companies and governments contributing to space exploration, the value of the space industry has increased to an estimated $314 billion a year globally. New areas of commercial opportunity include space tourism, deep space mining and space medicine. Private companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are already racing to develop commercial asteroid-mining techniques to harvest precious metals.

Eastern Kentucky has been hit hard by job losses in the coal industry. The aerospace sector offers a ray of hope for a region looking for some good economic news. As Perry County Judge Executive Scott Alexander said of USA Drone Port, “it has the potential to change the way other people see Eastern Kentucky and to change the way we see ourselves.”

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky daydreaming, it is actual work already being done with real results. According to Proverbs 29:18, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Growing Eastern Kentucky’s aerospace industry is a vision worth following.

Jason Belcher of Harold is an entrepreneur and former U.S. Air Force officer.

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