Life can take you on interesting paths that you never imagined. Just ask Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) instructor Fred Coeburn who has found himself in the middle of nationwide buzz surrounding Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as “drones.” Coeburn is part of a movement that is quickly putting Wise County, Virginia on the map with the potential to make drones a new industry in rural Southwest Virginia.
In 2001, while busy teaching at MECC, Coeburn took up the hobby of remote control aircraft flying. “We all wanted to be pilots as little boys,” said Coeburn. The interest in flying was one mutually shared by Jack Kennedy, the clerk of court for Wise County and the city of Norton . Kennedy is a strong supporter of drone technology in southwest Virginia. When Virginia Tech was approved in 2014 as a UAS test spot, Kennedy was able to convince those in charge to extend that airspace down to Wise County.
On Friday, July 17, 2015, Wise Country made history when the first ever drone delivery of medical supplies was made in the United States. The drones departed from Lonesome Pine Airport and flew to the Remote Area Medical Clinic (RAM) which provides thousands of patients with free healthcare each year.
This history-making event not only caught the attention of private industry but also helped build a case for community college support of the UAS industry in Wise County.
In May of 2015, Coeburn taught the first ever UAS course at a community college in Virginia. AVI-195 Introduction to Unmanned Aerial Systems provides a hands-on introduction to the history, theory, design, construction, flight, and potential utilization of unmanned aerial systems with a specific focus on quadcopters. Television crews showed up for his first five classes. “I had 14 students and we had a ball all summer long. The curriculum was designed using my imagination and tweaked with the goodwill of industry experts.” said Coeburn.
The future is bright for UAS education in Virginia. MECC and three other community colleges will be working with Old Dominion University to create a certificate/associate/four-year program that focuses on unmanned aerial systems.
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