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University of Arkansas – Fort Smith Kicks off First UAS Course of Many

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The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (UAFS) is rolling out the first of what the university plans to be many future courses on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The class, offered through the Center for Business and Professional Development at UAFS, is taking place this week at the UAFS campus.

In the 40-hour, noncredit course, students will acquire basic aviation knowledge to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 knowledge exam, the university explains. After taking the course, participants will travel to Drake Field in Fayetteville to take the Part 107 exam at an official FAA testing site.

“Unmanned aircraft systems is a growing industry in Arkansas, and the coursework at UAFS will help train remote pilots that are needed to meet the many anticipated opportunities in this field,” says Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, in a press release from the university. “Already, commercial operators in the state are using UAS technology for precision agriculture and oil and gas exploration. With more pilots such as those trained at UAFS entering the workforce, a burgeoning UAS market is about to be unleashed in Arkansas.”

According to Dr. Ken Warden, dean of the university’s College of Applied Science and Technology, UAFS plans to address the growth of the UAS industry by introducing more classes in the future.

“We’re developing more coursework to implement a full noncredit program of study that incorporates operations, maintenance, regulations, data collection, data analytics and other areas of study that go along with the uses of unmanned vehicles,” Warden says. “Our approach is not to address one industry, but to address how this technology can be utilized across many industries and offer coursework that is transferable and has multiple industry applications.”

Industry partners collaborating with UAFS on UAS offerings include the 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard; energies, a company based in Huntsville, Ala.; and Mag Aerospace, based in Woodbridge, Va.

>> Link to original article.

Put to the test, cybersecurity experts easily infiltrate energy companies’ networks

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A ship navigates through Buffalo Bayou heading to a dock along the Houston Ship Channel in La Porte.

The computer hacker crouched low in thick brush on a cold December night, just beyond the fence line of his target — a massive U.S. oil refinery.

Wearing night-vision goggles and dressed in black, he swung a rubber mallet into the dirt, trying to produce vibrations to distract the plant’s ground-penetrating radar system. He swung again and again. Flashlights emerged from a distant building, then disappeared.

Soon a train roared by, providing the cover his team needed. Quickly, two more men appeared from the shadows. They threw a wool blanket over a 16-foot barbed wire fence, climbed over and rushed to a small building housing the facility’s vital computer controls.

The door had an electronic lock, a badge reader and a plate to thwart lock picking. But the intruders caught a break. The door didn’t sit properly in its frame, leaving just enough space to shimmy it open.

Within moments, they had planted a small device, about the size of a credit card, designed to begin penetrating the refinery’s controls systems.

“Bingo!” crackled from the radio inside a white SUV adorned with a phony logo of the refining company, some 200 yards away. From there, Jeremiah Talamantes gave the signal to leave — “Rabbit!”

As the other hackers hopped in the van, the driver’s nerves calmed. Then a stark reality set in.

“We’ve used a couple hundred dollars in gear, and we were able to break into a refinery without anyone knowing,” said Talamantes, president and managing partner of RedTeam Security in Minnesota. “The implication is pretty devastating.”

Talamantes was hired by the refinery to test its defenses against cyberattacks and, like so many others, the mission was way too easy. Despite the refinery’s remote location, fencing, high-tech sensors and security team, his team was able to infiltrate its network and potentially wreak havoc.

In recent years, a growing cottage industry of boutique security companies has emerged as oil and gas companies seek outside help to protect their networks. In test after test, private specialists reveal what federal authorities say is a growing national security threat — control systems for valves, pumps, pipelines and refineries are among the most vulnerable targets to cyberattacks.

Often, security firms find that drillers, refiners and pipeline operators run facilities with outdated software and aging automated devices without built-in security. Some companies lack internal detection systems that would allow them to spot cyber intruders.

“We almost always get in,” said Jason Larsen, who leads a team at security firm IOActive that has operations in more than 30 countries. “Most of the time we’re not detected.”

Many energy companies are turning to security specialists to determine whether protocols and defensive software can withstand the creativity and determination of global hackers, said Larry Dannemiller, a cyber insurance broker for major U.S. insurance firms.

“Are all the dollars they’re spending actually making them more secure?” he said. “You have to test it.”

Talamantes shared a detailed account of his firm’s efforts to penetrate the refinery in December, so long as the company’s name wasn’t published. Executives were stunned by the intrusion, he said, believing a successful break-in would have taken a much larger team with more time, resources and expensive gear.

“We proved them wrong,” Talamantes said bluntly.

Global problem

From the mines of Chile to offshore platforms in the Indian Ocean to refineries in the United States, Jim Guinn has hacked just about every kind of energy facility.

“There’s not a refinery, power generation facility, oil terminal or platform that doesn’t have technology on it that we haven’t been able to infiltrate,” said Guinn, global head of energy security Accenture consulting in Houston.

This grim assessment comes in spite of the industry’s hard-won progress in cybersecurity over the past few years. Before 2010, energy executives largely ignored the threat such attacks posed to their operations, said Gary Leibowitz, a board member of the Houston chapter of InfraGard, a group that works on cybersecurity issues with the FBI and private companies.

That year, the Stuxnet virus damaged thousands of centrifuges within Iranian nuclear facilities, demonstrating how computer viruses could be so destructive in the real world. Since then, many oil companies have made progress in hardening firewalls, bolstering anti-virus software and other defenses and improving cybersecurity practices.

“Companies are spending time and money on cybersecurity, and it’s across the board,” Leibowitz said.

Exxon Mobil, for example, bans its employees from using personal email and USB flash drives that can carry computer viruses and regularly sends simulated phishing emails to test whether workers will click on alluring links or open attachments, executives said at industry conferences. The company, like many other oil and gas companies contacted for this story, declined comment.

The oil and gas industry, however, remains at a disadvantage against sophisticated hackers, cybersecurity specialists said. The sheer size of the industry alone makes it difficult to secure thousands of devices in vast networks of pipelines, refineries and other facilities stretching across the continent.

In contrast, hackers have to look for only a small number of security flaws to exploit these systems, said Philip Quade, who recently retired as chief of the National Security Agency’s cyber task force.

“Just about anything,” he said, “can be penetrated by someone sophisticated and determined.”

Open to the public

In many cases, the resourceful hacker doesn’t need to develop new malware to get access to industrial controls — a simple internet search can do the trick.

A few years ago, Eireann Leverett, a cybersecurity researcher in the United Kingdom, used a public search engine to find more than 7,500 industrial devices that were linked to the internet. Fewer than 1 in 5 required any kind of authentication, such as passwords, to get inside.

Among the devices hackers have attacked through the internet are the lightweight sensors that run along thousands of miles of pipeline across the nation. “We should be worried,” Leverett said.

Compromising a sensor on a pipeline could allow a hacker to alter readings of how much oil and gas is running through the pipeline, which could cause the systems to begin pumping more hydrocarbons, said Alvaro Cardenas, an assistant professor and cybersecurity expert at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“It might cause a pressure blast,” Cardenas said.

A few years ago, hackers succeeded in hijacking the modems attached to remote sensors owned by two North American pipeline and utilities companies, after finding them on a public search engine, said Guinn, one of the cybersecurity consultants that investigated the incident.

A power outage had caused the sensors to reset — effectively, turn off — their security settings, leaving them vulnerable to attack from the internet. In this case, the hackers used these devices to launch cyberattacks against other groups. If they had more nefarious ends, they could have crippled the pipelines, Guinn said.

“It’s possible to demonstrate catastrophic disruption in energy company assets,” he said. “We know it can be done.”

Wireless woes

Beyond the internet, industrial controls, sensors and other devices with wireless capabilities or radio transmitters are open to attack by hackers using long-range antennas.

In fact, an off-the-shelf drone attached with a wireless receiver could fly within range of a facility and intercept its wireless signals, according to cybersecurity specialists.

Jeff Melrose, principal security manager at industrial control vendor Yokagowa, piloted three white drones simultaneously over a parking lot in Stafford, demonstrating their maneuverability and potential for extending a hacker’s reach to capture wireless signals.

“Drones are coming into their own, and the things people can do with them will only increase,” said Melrose, noting that energy companies have reported drones buzzing by facilities or crashed with dead batteries nearby.

Security personnel at energy companies are more used to dealing with activists handcuffing themselves to valves, Melrose added. They rarely look up to see the threat from above.

“The question is,” he said, “are you thinking about the deviousness of your adversary?”

The Department of Homeland Security said network scanning and probing accounted for 79 cyber incidents involving industrial controls in 2014 and 2015, but it would not disclose additional details, citing security concerns.

Many companies have adopted advanced encryptions. Still, the most common security setting for wireless networks in energy and other industrial facilities remains the password-protected WPA-2 protocol, used for household wireless networks.

Skilled hackers could break into them in about two hours, said Kevin Dunn, senior vice president at the Austin offices of NCC Group, a security firm based in the United Kingdom.

“If this were a targeted attack,” Dunn said, “whether it be ‘hactivism’ or a nation-state, all they need is time and money and opportunity.”

Employee mishaps

Simple mistakes by workers can lead to devastating consequences.

Two years ago, Steve Mustard, a cybersecurity specialist for the nonprofit group Automation Federation, was delivering a lecture at a Western oil company’s office in Tunisia when the event came to an abrupt halt. The company’s anti-virus program had detected the destructive Stuxnet virus.

IT workers rushed to phones and computers, discovering an employee had accidentally uploaded the virus by plugging an infected thumb drive into his computer. They quickly tracked down and contained the virus.

Had the employee plugged that drive into a computer at a nearby oil production facility, chances are the company would never have caught the virus. It had no detection systems in place for the computer network controlling operations, Mustard said.

“Spills, potential worker injuries, explosions, fires — all of those things could happen,” Mustard said. “What you’ve got are very vulnerable systems that aren’t managed very well, and on the other side, an exponentially increasing number of threats.”

Physical threats

As Talamantes’ refinery caper shows, hackers don’t have to limit themselves to the internet to break into computer networks.

With long-range cameras, they can spend days watching workers entering front doors, so they can mimic their behavior and exploit weak spots to get inside, Talamantes said.

Before Talamantes and his team raided the oil refinery in December, they staked out the company’s corporate offices. They watched employees at nearby coffee shops and restaurants, managing to steal and clone badges.

Talamantes said he tries to stay within the bounds of what real hackers can do with a modest investment. In the refinery raid, his team carried only a small amount of gear, including a laptop, lock-pick set and a $35 device to tap the computer systems, all available on Amazon.

They used two 16-foot ladders, which they returned to Home Depot for a full refund, a set of four two-way radios and lock picks. Over the course of his career, Talamantes said, such tests have found plenty of security weaknesses, cyber and otherwise, that should worry the energy industry.

But the scariest part, he said, is that so much of hacking is low-tech, requiring little expertise.

“Anyone can do these types of things.”

>> Link to original article.

Renewables Consultancy Adopts Drones for Inspections

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Scotland-based renewables consultancy SgurrEnergy – part of the clean energy business of Wood Group, an oil and gas services company – has brought unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to its existing inspection services.

Following approval from the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority and extensive testing in 2016, the company is introducing drones as a stand-alone service or as part of a suite of services supporting project delivery and operation. The consultancy says its UAVs are equipped with a variety of camera options to provide an accurate detailed assessment of an asset’s condition.

Notably, according to SgurrEnergy, drones can carry out operations and maintenance inspections on wind turbine generators (WTGs) up to four times faster than traditional rope-access methods. The safety risk to inspection personnel is also significantly reduced, if not eradicated, thanks to a drone’s ability to capture multi-angle, high-definition photos of hard-to-reach spaces, the company adds.

Addtionally, SgurrEnergy says its software can analysz the drone-captured inspection data and convert it into asset information for clients. By using the company’s interactive, online reporting portal, site owners and operators can identify historical trends and link defects directly to WTG performance. In turn, clients can maximize annual energy production on their sites, the company explains.

“We’re delighted to be adding UAVs to our existing inspection service offering,” comments Robbie Gibson, director of asset management at SgurrEnergy. “SgurrEnergy’s wide range of operational and maintenance services are designed to optimize operational performance and increase the revenue generation of our clients’ projects whilst reducing operational costs.”

>> Link to original article.

Finnish Cleantech Company Makes the Case for Emissions-Detecting UAS

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Aeromon, a cleantech start-up based in Finland, recently demonstrated the effectiveness of drone-mounted platforms for measuring industrial emissions.

A pilot program at the Ämmässuo waste treatment center, which is operated by the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority (HSY), compared historical data captured with handheld measurement tools with aerial measurements taken by an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) fitted with Aeromon’s sensor package. The composition and concentration of the biowaste stack and treatment facility emissions were also studied.

Aeromon says the resulting data demonstrated the capability of the platform to detect fugitive emissions in a range of industrial settings, including those in which measurements may have previously been difficult to obtain.

“When aerially deployed, our sensor package can create a detailed emissions map of an industrial area,” says Jouko Salo, chairman of Aeromon. “This data can be combined with environmental data in our cloud-based analytics platform, Aeromon Cloud Service, to provide a complete view of the emissions.”

The company says the Aeromon platform maps and identifies emissions by using lightweight sensors that analyze a wide range of gases. The analysis is also augmented with exact location information and environmental conditions parameters. In addition, the platform’s light weight makes it capable of being attached to a drone that typically carries a professional camera set.

“The analyzers used in Aeromon’s quadcopter were very portable and seemed reliable,” says Roni Järvensivu, site environmental engineer as HSY Ämmässuo. “The graphs provided in Aeromon’s final report were informative and easy to understand. We found the results obtained by Aeromon’s quadcopter to be close to our own measurements.”

Salo adds, “With emissions monitoring legislation tightening across the globe, the need for reliable fugitive emissions-detection solutions is increasing.”

>> Link to original article.

Silent Falcon selected as UAS of choice by Precision Vectors for BVLOS Operations in Canada

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Silent Falcon™ UAS Technologies is pleased to announce Precision Vectors Aerial Inc. of Vancouver, BC, has chosen the Silent Falcon UAS as their exclusive UAS for their BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) unmanned aerial services business in Canada and the United States. Precision Vectors will use Silent Falcon exclusively in BVLOS UAS services focusing in the oil and gas, forestry, wildfire, mining and large scale precision agriculture sectors. Precision Vectors will also distribute Silent Falcon UAS Technologies products throughout Canada.

“Our decision to work exclusively with Silent Falcon is founded on our assessment that it is by far the most advanced and commercially viable UAV for operations BVLOS. No other UAV has the solar voltaic wing, sophisticated payload bay and inaudible flight performance of Silent Falcon. Five hours airborne, 100 KM range and the ability to map 6,000 acres in one flight, symbolize what makes this a unique platform”, said Lorne Borgal, President, Precision Vectors Aerial Inc.

The Silent Falcon UAS was designed specifically for the type of BVLOS operations Precision Vectors will be performing. The Silent Falcon UAS is a fixed wing, solar electric powered, complete unmanned aircraft system. What makes the Silent Falcon system ideal for these types of operations are its long endurance, long range, silent operation and multiple payload capabilities. Its open architecture payload bay will allow Precision Vectors to quickly and easily change payloads for different missions.

“The Silent Falcon UAS excels in BVLOS applications. Its ability to fly long distances, stay in the air for a long time and easily change payloads make it an excellent choice for a UAS service provider like Precision Vectors that is focused exclusively on BVLOS applications. Precision Vectors will be proving the ‘use case’ for Silent Falcon in pipeline gas leak detection, large scale mapping, forestry and forest fire management, mining and large scale precision agriculture. We are excited to be partnering with Precision Vectors as they develop the BVLOS UAS services business in Canada and the US”, said John W. Brown, President and CEO of Silent Falcon UAS Technologies.


Silent Falcon™ UAS Technologies manufactures patent pending, state-of-the-art small solar electric Unmanned Aircraft Systems and components and sensors for commercial and military markets including natural resource management, pipeline inspection and leak detection, environmental surveys, security/ISR, public safety, and mapping/surveying. Silent Falcon is the only solar electric UAS to provide long endurance and range, silent operations, and an open interface payload bay, that is also portable and easy to use. The Company is headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For more information on Silent Falcon UAS, please visit:


Precision Vectors Aerial Inc is an aviation technology services company utilizing the Silent Falcon and its sophisticated sensors to generate exceptional information, faster and at lower cost than is otherwise possible. We integrate business and organizational needs, aeronautical skills and cutting edge technology to collect data and deliver results for our clients which transforms the quality and timeliness of their decision making. The Company is headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, with offices in Barrie, Ontario, and Tucson, Arizona.

>> Link to original article.

CyPhy Works Adds UAV Services to Texas Company’s Oil and Gas Biz

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Danvers, Mass.-based CyPhy Works Inc. is bringing its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) services to oil and gas customers of Pilot Thomas Logistics, a Fort Worth, Texas-based provider of fuel, lubricants and chemicals to the energy, marine, mining and industrial markets in North America.

Specifically, customers will use CyPhy’s tethered Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications (PARC) system, which the company describes as an “extremely durable” aircraft employing CyPhy’s patented microfilament tethered system that “provides secure communication and ensures continuous flight, lasting for days and weeks, rather than the standard minutes of most battery-powered UAVs.” The company also calls the drone “easily portable; quick to assemble; extremely rugged; and resistant to wind, precipitation and airborne debris.”

“We are excited to be working with Pilot Thomas Logistics to provide our UAV services to their customers in the oil and gas industry,” comments Lance VandenBrook, CEO of CyPhy Works.

VandenBrook says applications for the PARC system include “emergency/incident management, job-site surveillance and security, equipment monitoring, and communications.”

“This is a great opportunity for Pilot Thomas Logistics,” says Scott Prince, president and CEO of Pilot Thomas Logistics. “Our relationship with CyPhy Works allows us to expand our service portfolio to include innovative, state-of-the-art drone services that will assist our customers in the day-to-day operations of their business.”

>> Link to original article.

Shooting Down UAS Would be A-OK Under Proposed Oklahoma Law

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A lawmaker in Oklahoma recently proposed a bill that would grant immunity to anyone who voluntarily “damages or destroys” an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) under certain conditions.

The text of the bill, S.B.660, rolled out by Republican State Sen. Ralph Shortey, states as follows:

“Any person owning or controlling real estate or other premises who voluntarily damages or destroys a drone located on the real estate or premises or within the airspace of the real estate or premises not otherwise regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration or where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, shall, together with any successors in interest, if any, not be civilly liable for causing the damage or destruction to the property of such person.”

Further, the legislation describes a drone as a “powered, aerial vehicle that carries or is equipped with a recording device that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, and can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely.” According to the history of the bill, the legislation was most recently passed by a Senate Judiciary Committee.

Yup, under S.B.660, you’d be able to shoot down a drone – which, as pointed out by the Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma (USA-OK), is, indeed, illegal.

Jamey Jacob, president of USA-OK, which is the Oklahoma chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, clarified with UAO that shooting down either a manned or unmanned aircraft is a federal crime – “and for good reason,” he says, noting the “serious risk to people and property both in the air and on the ground.”

In addition to gas-powered drones, Jacob points out that the majority of UAS are run with lithium-polymer batteries, which can “violently explode and catch fire” if punctured but are generally “extremely safe in normal operation,” he notes.

“In the best-case scenario, a damaged aircraft will crash, possibly uncontrollably – creating an unintentional hazard,” he warns. “With the current fire danger across the state, this alone is a cause for serious concern.”

Likewise, in a blog from the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the group explains that Shortey’s bill “attempts to protect privacy,” but because it “encourages individuals to destroy or shoot down model aircraft,” it is “extremely problematic.”

“We unequivocally support the protection of individual privacy, but individuals who follow this bill will face severe federal penalties,” AMA says in the blog post, which adds that the legislation is also “unlawful and counter to federal regulations.”

Furthermore, in a statement to UAO, Chad Budreau, public relations and government affairs director at AMA, notes that the bill “may run afoul of the FAA’s regulatory authority over the nation’s airspace.”

“We hope the Oklahoma legislature will reconsider this legislation and work with us to limit the burden on the existing community of responsible UAS enthusiasts,” he adds.

On the other hand, Shortey wrote in a Facebook post in response to a public comment, “I think this is a very commonsense bill that balances the privacy rights of citizens and gives them the ability for recourse if their privacy is being violated.”

The senator also said the legislation “puts the impetus on the drone operator”: Should operators violate a “citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy,” he says, “they could end up losing that drone.”

“It forces them to ensure that they are operating them properly, legally and in the right airspace,” he says.

In other replies to comments on his Facebook page, Shortey also noted that the bill would not “interfere with the legitimate and legal use of drones” (in response to a comment that said UAS are also “used to catch bad guys”) and would not affect, for example, companies that use unmanned aircraft to inspect power lines.

The senator’s response was that power lines are located “in an easement where the citizens don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

“Inherently, the power company doesn’t own the property, but because [they] have a right to it, then the citizen has no privacy claim there,” he wrote. “So if a citizen were to damage or destroy one in the easement, then the company would have legal recourse to recover costs associated with that damage. Also, this bill does not absolve someone of any criminal liability associated with their action.”

Notably, according to his biography from the Oklahoma State Senate, Shortey’s “priorities in the legislature” include “personal liberty,” as well as “strengthening public safety.”

On a slightly similar front, last year in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law S.B.807, a bill that gives “civil immunity to an emergency responder who damages an unmanned aircraft in the course of firefighting, air ambulance or search-and-rescue operations.” However, this legislation pertains only to emergency rescue personnel who come across unauthorized UAS that could impede their operations.

Last year, a lawsuit concerning the rights of UAS operators versus property owners was filed in the U.S. District Court of Western Kentucky. Law firm Frost Brown Todd’s client, Kentucky resident David Boggs, filed the suit against William Meredith, who had used a gun to take down Boggs’ drone over Meredith’s property.

Meredith said the drone had trespassed on his property and, thus, invaded his privacy, and although the shooter first faced criminal charges, they were dropped by a judge who said Meredith “had a right to shoot” the aircraft.

In a statement issued last year, James Mackler, Boggs’ legal counsel, brought up the “tension” that exists between “private property rights and the freedom to use the national airspace.”

“Property owners deserve to be free from harassment and invasion of their privacy,” he said. “Likewise, aircraft operators need to know the boundaries in which they can legally operate without risk of being shot down.”

>> Link to original article.

Wise investment: Coal community seeks economic reprieve in drones

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WISE — Jack Kennedy drove to the Lonesome Pine Airport earlier this year, shining his headlights through a wire fence and onto a grass field that he said witnessed history not so long ago.

This is where the first sanctioned U.S. drone delivery took place in 2015. Kennedy was the one who made sure it happened in his rural hometown, a community in search of an economic savior. Kennedy and others are targeting the high-tech drone industry for the former coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

Remote controlled quadcopters are mostly reserved for hobbyists today, but the technology is rapidly entering the mainstream. Kennedy imagines a day when drones will offer a wide range of blue collar style jobs, from remotely checking power lines to gathering water samples from streams.

Companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, with big drone ambitions, need to test their new capabilities over communities that are sparsely populated enough for the work to be safe and open-minded enough to embrace the technology.

Wise County is both.

That’s the future of the area, Kennedy said before throwing his SUV into reverse and heading toward one of the most visible signs of the county’s past.

He turned left onto Old Hurricane Road, winding through hills misshapen from generations of mining but desolate now. The vehicle lurched to a stop at another fence, this one topped with barbed wire and no trespassing signs.

Kennedy’s headlights exposed mining equipment, rusted and almost unrecognizable. Pushers and crushers previously used in underground mines sat in neat rows stretched across an 11-acre field.

The equipment once supported thousands of high-paying jobs in Wise County, where Alpha Natural Resources reigned. After the mines shut down and the coal company filed for bankruptcy in 2015, Kennedy said, locals started noticing the rows of machines.

Grass has grown up around the equipment and tires have sunken into the mud. Kennedy estimated the machines’ worth in the millions of dollars. Yet no one is buying.

“It’s a graveyard,” Kennedy said.

These are the stakes for Wise County: Adapt or die.

Asked about the feasibility of turning old coal jobs into new drone jobs, neither Kennedy nor anyone else involved in the region’s economic development balked. They can’t afford to look back.

“That limits our future and the future of our children and grandchildren, as well as ourselves. We’re better people than that,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got to convince, No. 1, ourselves that we can do it. And, No. 2, show others throughout Virginia that we’re capable and competent to do it.”

• • •

Wise County has ridden the coal industry through generations of booms and busts, but this downturn feels different, county officials said.

Even if the industry bounces back, much of the easily extractable coal has been mined already.

Coal and gas severance taxes, which are paid in proportion to the amount extracted from the region, accounted for 17.5 percent of Wise County’s total revenue in 2010, according to data from county finance administrator David Cox.

Those revenues fell from $13 million in 2011 to $3 million in 2015.

“[Past leaders] didn’t focus on the time when coal would not be part of our economy because times were good, money was flowing,” Cox said. “They spent the coal severance.”

Cox, who was a mining industry employee before going to work for the county, said the error is abundantly clear today. But it’s too late to correct.

For the upcoming year, he’s budgeted coal severance tax revenues of $2 million, all of which he hopes to see invested in economic development efforts.

Meanwhile, county schools are being consolidated, there’s a county hiring freeze and no end in sight for the cutbacks.

The coal industry that employed 1,851 people in Wise County in 2005 shrank to 527 jobs by 2015, according to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

County Administrator Shannon Scott said the largest employers are now local schools, hospitals, banks and commercial retail.

Wal-Mart and other retailers now employ more people than coal, he said: “Sad.”

Carl Snodgrass, who has led county economic development efforts for decades, spoke of the current situation with realistic optimism. Coal took the biggest chunk out of the economy, but he also has seen declines in manufacturing, textiles, timber and agriculture.

“We’re about out of options as far as the current economy is concerned,” Snodgrass said, explaining why locals are now turning to high-tech. “We’re just trying to do whatever we can to salvage the population, retain families with school-aged children. It’s tough.”

• • •

Kennedy is Wise County’s elected circuit court clerk. But the lifelong space enthusiast and former state lawmaker has a hand in all corners of local government — especially economic development.

He acknowledges that the drone industry won’t grow large enough to replace all the jobs lost in the downturn.

But it’s a start, he said.

He said he wants to see a plan rolled out in three phases.

First, Kennedy said, the county needs to train a small army of drone pilots so they can pass Federal Aviation Administration certification tests, part of a relatively new system that offers a first-movers advantage.

Once Wise County has a sizable group of trained drone pilots and mechanics, Kennedy said, the county can recruit companies to take advantage of that expertise, along with the region’s sparsely populated acreage.

Wise would have a lot going for it, Kennedy said. Some of the most attractive features might be the type of open airspace where one still can see the Milky Way at night, and a local government that is willing to try anything.

It might never make sense for Google to launch a commercial drone delivery service in Wise County, Kennedy said. But maybe this is where the company could come to perfect the technology before a nation-wide rollout.

“Half of Wise County is national forest, 10 percent is state forest and another 25 percent is mined land,” Kennedy said. “As a result, there’s a lot of room for error.”

The final step of Kennedy’s plan is to convert that drone industry cluster into jobs.

Wise County will have to wait for one of the applications tested here to take off. By then, Kennedy said, the area would be the most natural place for more permanent operations, such as engineering offices and manufacturing facilities.

“We want to develop that niche, and do it well,” Kennedy said. “If we develop human capital, they will come. It’s not about building the infrastructure. It’s educating the human.”

• • •

The plan has received support locally and across the state. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made stops in Wise to discuss the potential of the drone industry to revitalize former coal communities.

“We have a huge opportunity, especially in Southwest and Southside Virginia with some of the hardest working folks in America, great skill sets,” McAuliffe told The Roanoke Times. “This is a new economy. I don’t care where you live in Virginia, I can find a job for you.”

The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, a state organization focusing on revitalizing coal-producing communities, recently designated the drone industry as a targeted business sector. Spokeswoman Susan Copeland said it’s still early, but she’s begun attending drone trade shows to get a better idea of what the industry is seeking.

Wise County supervisors Chairman Bob Adkins said he “wouldn’t know a drone from a turtle shell.” But he’s backing the efforts nonetheless.

“We don’t have a lot going for us since coal left,” Adkins said. “We are very supportive of any rumor or any hint or any indication of economic development partner coming.”

Fred Coeburn, who has begun teaching some of Virginia’s first drone classes at nearby Mountain Empire Community College, said his father and grandfather were coal miners. He knows well the stereotypes and the tendency people have to balk at the idea of retraining coal workers to become high-tech drone pilots.

“Those are the people who don’t know what coal mining is. They don’t know how high-tech it has become,” Coeburn said. “When coal is mined, it’s done with a remote control, just like this [drone]. A drone operator is someone who is dedicated to accomplishing their mission, has hand-eye motor skills and knows how to run a machine. Coal miners fit this bill.”

Virginia Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson agreed.

She said the state has been investing heavily in attracting the drone industry since at least 2013, when the FAA named Virginia Tech as one of six certified drone test sites. Jackson said Wise County since has established itself as a state leader.

“They understand and are willing to make the commitment that this is something they want to investigate, invest in and really become by building an ecosystem,” Jackson said. “So part of it is not just the fact that it’s a nice fit from a topography and geography standpoint. It’s also the fact that you have a willingness and belief by the people there that it’s possible. When you couple those two together, that’s a pretty good combination.”

• • •

The county continues to celebrate smaller wins that locals say are steps in the right direction.

It was the site of the first drone delivery, which made national news and is known locally as the region’s own “Kitty Hawk moment,” a references to the North Carolina coastal town where the Wright brothers launched the first controlled powered airplane flights.

Local economic development groups have received millions of dollars in government grants to promote the industry, and Manassas-based Aurora Flight Sciences has decided to leave one of its Centaur optionally piloted aircraft at the county’s airport for testing around Wise.

Kennedy said he’s discussed with drone industry leaders the possibility of experiments around Wise. A group of Israeli companies is scheduled to tour the area later this month.

Coeburn has been offering his drone classes for two years now, ushering through about 45 students.

The courses previously did not count toward a degree or certification. But Coeburn this year received permission to create a new course prefix (UMS, which stands for unmanned systems) just for drone classes. Students can take a series of courses toward a certificate from Mountain Empire Community College. Other colleges can use the prefix to offer their own curriculum.

“As far as replacing every coal mining job that’s been lost in the five years in this area with drones, that’s not going to happen. We don’t even dream like that — but we can try,” Coeburn said. “Every single job in this area counts. When you see someone leave this [classroom] door saying, ‘I got a job’ and you can see the smile on their face — that’s all that matters.”

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Harris Works to Build Infrastructure Network for BVLOS Drones

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Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp. has received a two-year Research North Dakota grant to help develop what the company calls a first-of-its-kind solution to enable beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Yesterday, representatives from Harris and North Dakota announced the partnership agreement to create a UAS network that will provide a range of aviation-grade services for BVLOS drone operations.

Harris will partner with the University of North Dakota and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site to develop the network infrastructure system under a Research North Dakota grant awarded by the North Dakota Centers of Excellence Commission. It is a continuation of a previous grant that included development and a risk and safety assessment of UAS detect-and-avoid technology. The UAS BVLOS network will be developed within the Grand Forks-to-Fargo corridor.

Harris is working to create a regional infrastructure that is scalable to the state of North Dakota – and eventually to the entire country, the company says, adding that developing this infrastructure will help accelerate regulatory approval of BVLOS UAS operations.

“By collaborating with the University of North Dakota and Harris, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site will have the opportunity to evaluate, develop and implement a UAS network and airspace services,” comments Nicholas Flom, executive director of the federal test site. “This network will create a real-world environment for users to develop, test and certify new products and services.”

Harris says it is looking to partner with end-users in the area, such as railroads and electric utility companies, to create UAS test scenarios.

“North Dakota is committed to creating an environment where organizations like Harris Corp., the University of North Dakota and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site may pursue new and exciting opportunities with UAS,” adds Brian Opp, manager of aerospace business development at the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

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SkySpecs Collaborates with Siemens Wind Power for Use of Automated Drone Technology in Offshore Turbine Inspections

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Siemens is collaborating with US-based company SkySpecs to deploy automated drone technology for onshore and offshore wind turbine inspections. The goal of the collaboration is to develop a push-button inspection system that is faster, repeatable and more efficient than existing methods. Siemens is involving its Wind Power business and its next47 venture unit, which was established in October 2016, to accelerate the development of new technologies. SkySpecs was founded in 2012 and is the first company to successfully demonstrate fully autonomous wind turbine inspections.

Smaller and more powerful computing platforms and sensors, better battery technology, and vastly improved algorithms for managing flight and safety have transformed drones from a niche hobby into a global reality over the last three to five years. Drones have become essential tools for businesses spanning every industry, from delivery to industrial inspection. Where they have historically required a professional pilot, the latest-generation drones are flying with increasing autonomy. High-precision applications such as wind turbine blade inspection have unique requirements both in terms of user input and navigation techniques.

SkySpecs combines deep expertise in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine-based analytics to advance industrial drone inspections. Using proprietary software and best-in-class, off-the-shelf hardware, the company’s goal is to provide an end-to-end solution that includes data collection, damage identification, classification and recommendations. SkySpecs’ technology solves one of the top challenges that industrial asset owners and service providers face: generating timely, precise and easy-to-consume inspection data while simultaneously minimizing down-time and personnel-related expenses.

Siemens is collaborating with SkySpecs to refine its technology for utility-scale wind turbine inspections and prepare it for commercial readiness. The joint effort will enable Siemens to incorporate more advanced preventive maintenance techniques using SkySpecs’ technology. It will also provide significant data that can be used to inform customers about the lifespan of their asset(s) or to gain insights into contributing causes of eventual failures. Automated inspections will lower operating costs substantially and potentially increase the efficiency and lifespan of wind turbines – outcomes to which both Siemens and SkySpecs are deeply committed.

According to Siemens Wind Power Chief Technology Officer Ruediger Knauf, “The autonomous drone technology supports our ‘Digitalization@Wind’ initiative in generating high quality field data about the condition of our wind turbines. This is particularly valuable for our offshore business, where completing inspections quickly, safely and cost effectively is of critical importance. Siemens Wind Power and SkySpecs can mutually benefit from this collaboration via next47, in sharing and co-developing technology and expertise. I am confident that we can bring blade inspection to the next level.”

SkySpecs’ blade inspections are automated from start to finish, minimizing the need to allocate highly trained – and therefore expensive – human resources to the job. The baseline solution allows drones to take off, capture high-resolution images of all four sides of each blade, return and land in under 15 minutes. The blades do not need to be stopped in any particular orientation. The captured data is uploaded to the cloud where it can be analyzed, annotated, and shared. Data inspection and report generation are completed in a fraction of the time it takes to conduct ground-based or rope inspections. Automation offers the flexibility to conduct inspections on-demand rather and at set intervals. Every image is tagged with the data that customers need to locate, annotate and make decisions about timing of blade repairs. Precise, accurate data location provides a clear benchmark and a digital timeline of damage progression.

According to SkySpecs CEO Danny Ellis, “We have been working with customers and partners in the wind energy industry to develop the most effortless and technologically sophisticated – yet fully automated – solution on the market. Siemens Wind Power is motivated to improve turbine inspection technology, including data collection and analysis, and have provided us access to their deep resources and expertise. Siemens has an incredibly impressive understanding of both the wind energy markets and autonomous technology, making our partnership a true win-win.”

About SkySpecs:

SkySpecs enables wind farm owners, ISPs, and OEMs to easily monitor and track the health of their wind turbines with a 15-minute automated robotic inspection. The single push of a button launches a drone, which surveys all sides of three blades, collecting high-resolution images that identify cracks, erosion, lightning strikes and other anomalies. Data is sent to a web portal for viewing, annotating, and reporting. SkySpecs automates and streamlines the inspection process from the moment the inspection is scheduled to the time the repair crew is hired. SkySpecs is a proud member of AWEA, WindEurope and the Commercial Drone Alliance.

About Siemens AG:

Siemens AG (Berlin and Munich) is a global technology powerhouse that has stood for engineering excellence, innovation, quality, reliability and internationality for more than 165 years. The company is active in more than 200 countries, focusing on the areas of electrification, automation and digitalization. One of the world’s largest producers of energy-efficient, resource-saving technologies, Siemens is No. 1 in offshore wind turbine construction, a leading supplier of gas and steam turbines for power generation, a major provider of power transmission solutions and a pioneer in infrastructure solutions as well as automation, drive and software solutions for industry. The company is also a leading provider of medical imaging equipment – such as computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging systems – and a leader in laboratory diagnostics as well as clinical IT. In fiscal 2016, which ended on September 30, 2016, Siemens generated revenue of €79.6 billion and net income of €5.6 billion. At the end of September 2016, the company had around 351,000 employees worldwide. Further information is available on the Internet at

About next47:

next47, launched in October 2016, seeks to partner with innovative minds and turn big ideas into viable businesses. The dynamic next47 team acts as a venture capitalist, advisor and catalyst into Siemens for external start-ups and creative entrepreneurs, including Siemens employees. Its global presence in Silicon Valley and Boston, Germany, China and Israel positions next47 close to the major innovation ecosystems to identify, shape and grow future businesses for Siemens. For more information see

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