hr droneracing 052017 02

A quad race drone makes it way through hoops suspended from trees in the woods during the Flying Circus First Person View Festival on May 20. Pilots looked through FPV goggles to see from the perspective of their drone as they raced laps through the woods.

Plans to convert a former primary school in Covington to a drone research and recreational facility got off the ground Tuesday with the announcement of $100,000 in federal funding.

The grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission will be matched with $100,000 in local money to complete a feasibility study for what is being called the Alleghany Highlands Drone Zone.

Located in the former Edgemont Primary School, the facility would serve as a regional incubator for an emerging industry in which small, unmanned aircraft are used for a variety of purposes, including delivering packages and taking aerial photographs.

The startup funds will also cover design, marketing and business plans for the facility.

“This grant will help Alleghany County promote economic growth and create new jobs in the exciting and growing field of unmanned systems,” U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine said in a statement announcing the federal funding.

Renovation of the city-owned school building is expected to create space for about 12 businesses, with three to five opening each year, the two Democrats representing Virginia said.

A grant application describes the “Drone Zone” as a public-private partnership with the city of Covington and Alleghany County that would serve “a niche market with drone racing, business startups and training.”

Local officials hope that drone-related ventures will be drawn to the area by new opportunities and existing activities, such as the Flying Circus FPV Festival, a drone race that held its second annual event in May in Covington.

“We’re very excited.” Covington City Manager Richard Douglas said. “It’s something we’ve been working on for a while and it’s been a team effort.”

A field that will serve as a research and training area is just a five-minute drive from the school, and the wide-open spaces of the Alleghany Highlands lend themselves well to experimenting with flying objects.

“You don’t have the obstacles and challenges of an urban environment, just the beautiful scenery,” Douglas said. “So that really helps.”

A partnership with nearby Dabney Lancaster Community College will offer training for drone entrepreneurs, and officials hope to work with the nearby Homestead and Greenbrier resorts to bring more participants to recreational events.

Established in 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission assists in economic recovery programs for the Appalachian region, which includes 25 counties and eight cities in Southwest Virginia.

As part of his budget, President Donald Trump has proposed to defund the commission.

“These federal funds show why it is important to maintain key federal, state, regional, and local partnerships and investments like those supported by ARC, which help our region build a stronger and more diverse economy,” Warner and Kaine said in their statement.

Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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