Launched in the summer of 2015, Mountain Empire Community College’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program has opened up new frontiers in rural southwest Virginia, a region hit hard by the decline of big coal. Through the program, students are learning how to maintain, design, fabricate, and fly drones. MECC has positioned itself at the forefront of this fledgling industry. MECC President Dr. Scott Hamilton is the program’s advocate-in-chief.
1. You’ve got a lot of displaced coal miners looking for jobs in the Big Stone Gap area. How can MECC’s UAV program help?
Dr. Hamilton: The use of UAVs is expanding rapidly in many different industries, and the technology is evolving rapidly. With the expansion of UAV technologies there is a growing demand for qualified UAV pilots. UAVs are being used in agriculture, law enforcement, commercial business, and many new and innovative applications are being developed rapidly. Qualified and talented UAV pilots will find opportunities for employment in many industries. Because this technology is relatively new, there are also opportunities to develop new applications and start up a new business using UAV technology for those who are entrepreneurial in nature.
2. What industry (e.g., real estate, agriculture, etc.) will benefit the most from UAV technology in your service territory?
Dr. Hamilton: Because this technology is so new and innovative applications are being developed rapidly, it is hard to say exactly which industry will find the use of UAV technology most beneficial. Certainly there are UAV applications for agriculture and mining operations. With the development of new sensing systems, UAVs can be used to survey vegetation for diseases and pests or growth rates and other parameters that could be useful in forest management, mining reclamation and related businesses in SW Virginia. Power companies can utilize UAVs to monitor power lines and right-of ways in the mountainous areas where access with vehicles is difficult. Law enforcement agencies use drones to track suspects and survey large areas of the landscape for illicit drug production operations. There are many potential uses of UAVs to be discovered that could be of benefit and create job opportunities in the region.
3. Being the first Virginia Community College to offer a drone technology course carries with it a certain distinction. Is it possible, in your opinion, that this kind of technology will put MECC in the forefront with respect to business and economic development opportunities in rural Southwest Virginia?
Dr. Hamilton: MECC is committed to being a partner in the economic development and revitalization of SW Virginia and has already taken a leadership role in developing a skilled workforce for local employers located in the region. MECC has demonstrated the capacity to respond rapidly to the training needs of new employers that want to locate in the area. Adding the UAV program just puts another “arrow in the quiver” of our economic development expertise and demonstrates that we are committed to developing innovative programs that offer new opportunities for our students that address the needs of potential business and industry partners coming to the area. Our Development office and the technical instruction divisions recently partnered with local communities and the Job Corps to apply for and receive an ARC/Power grant to develop a new Lineman training program that will provide opportunities for laid-off miners to train for an occupation that has the potential to replace the income and benefits that mining jobs used to offer in the region. It is this commitment to “doing what it takes” to bring new opportunities for our students that sets MECC apart as a leader in workforce development.
4. How would you describe the level of interest in the program thus far?
Dr. Hamilton: MECC has received a lot of positive publicity for being the first college in the Commonwealth to develop the UAV program. The interest generated by that publicity has been high, and enrollment in the program is at capacity. But, the UAV program is not the only place where MECC has adopted UAV technology. Our Drafting, Electronics, and Computer Science programs have all included UAV technology applications appropriate to those fields of study so the interest in UAVs has had a positive effect on multiple programs.
5. What are the long-term plans for the UAV program at MECC and prospects for continued success?
Dr. Hamilton: MECC will continue to develop and upgrade the UAV program and the uses of UAV technology in appropriate technical programs as this technology develops and matures. Our faculty will monitor changes in the industry with help from our advisory councils and incorporate new technologies and applications of UAV technology as they change. It is always a challenge to keep instruction current with a rapidly expanding technology, but our faculty are excited about the potential for students and will take advantage of every opportunity for staff development to keep their skills and knowledge current with new innovations in UAV technology.
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