Southwest Virginia growing drone industry


WISE, COUNTY, VA- One county leader said drones could be the key to new industry in rural Southwest Virginia.

Drones are small flying robots that can do a variety of things including taking video and following navigation.

A new grant could lead to Wise, Virginia landing on the front end of an up and coming industry.

“The possibilities at this point are endless,” Robert McLaughlin said. McLaughlin is taking a drone course at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap.

Mountain Empire is the only community college in Virginia with a course on unmanned aerial systems also known as drones.

“I see that it is the cutting edge of the new and upcoming technologies, there’s going to be a lot of job opportunities, a lot of different fields are going to open up as this develops,” McLaughlin said.

With all that drones are capable of now, “You start opening up this wide area of ‘oh I can use these to search for forest fires, I can use these to monitor my cattle in the field if I’ve got a 500 acre ranch, I can use these to search for diseased areas in my fields…I can use them for search and rescue..for emergency delivery of medical supplies,” Fred Coeburn, instructor of the drone course at Mountain Empire Community College said.

The course is just one aspect of a match dollar grant totaling 100,000 dollars to help begin a drone industry in Wise County, a county some say is positioned to be on the forefront of this new technology.

“There’s lots of capital being invested in the industry creating lots of jobs, nonetheless it has not matured enough at this point to where the locations have been ultimately decided, being a rural area with a quiet, national airspace provides us a unique opportunity,” Wise County clerk of circuit court Jack Kennedy said. “It’s an opportunity to provide job opportunities that will be long lasting, as this industry exponentially grows.”

Kennedy wrote the grant for Wise County. He said by 2025 some researchers have predicted the industry will have over 100,000 high-paying jobs.

“I view this industry as being on par with where we were with cellular telephones 15 to 20 years ago, or where we were in the late 1980’s and early 90’s of the commercial internet, both have dramatically changed the world,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said his county is starting now in learning, researching and developing drones, a product he said in just a few decades we will see as often as cars on the road.

On July 15th, international and national law experts will make their way to Wise County for drone and space law conference.

Then on July 17th, Wise county is partnering with NASA, and the Remote Area Medical clinic to drop medication via drones during the annual clinic in Southwest Virginia.

Kennedy said this will be the first humanitarian delivery of medications by a drone in the U.S.

A NASA plane will fly to the Lonesome Pine Runway with hundreds of pounds of medication.

Then drones will take ten pound packages of the medication and lower it down to doctors and nurses at the clinic.

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