Hannah Sutton said flying drones runs in the family.
The Uniontown native, who graduated last month from Laurel Highlands High School, wants to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps that saw him serve in the U.S. Air Force and later earn a license to pilot a drone.
Sutton, 18, like her grandfather is certified to fly drones. She completed a training program earlier this year at the Private Industry Council of Westmoreland/Fayette Inc. and then passed a test to earn her license.
“It’s a real competitive business and this gives me a head start,” Sutton said. “My grandfather had his own drone, flew his own drone. He did it for himself, it was a kind of privatized kind of thing. But I want to do this commercially because I thought it was kind of cool to work with drones.”
Sutton and seven other teens who graduated from the agency’s drone education program this spring put their skills to the test Saturday, showing off their flying abilities as they navigated drones through an obstacle course in the parking lot in front of the Private Industry Council’s facility in Hempfield.
The two-year old program, financed through a $79,500 grant from the
Westmoreland-Fayette Work Force Investment Board, taught 14 students, ages 16 through 18, to fly drones. The program provided classroom and online instruction as well as hands-on, in-person training.
The program catered to low-income students who also meet other qualifying factors set by the Private Industry Council.
“Drones are used in a variety of industries, especially in this day and age,” said Shelly Gilmore, youth program supervisor for the Private Industry Council. “These students came in not knowing really much about flying a drone at all. We provided them with 45 paid training hours to learn how to fly a drone.”
Students were paired with local businesses and paid hourly wages to create videos using the drones.
The program also provided drones to students and covered the costs for them to study for and take a required licensing test. Two students so far qualified for drone pilot licenses, Gilmore said.
Parents said the drone program gave their students potential job skills but also much more.
“I’m proud of my son for finishing it,” said Amanda Smith of Greensburg as she watched her 16-year-old son, Zander, finish the obstacle course in one minute and 18 seconds. “This program gave him self confidence.”
Marilyn Bevington’s 19-year-old son, Brian of North Huntingdon, graduated last month from Norwin High School. He was enrolled in the drone program last year and was invited back on Saturday to showcase his flying skills.
“His goal is to get licensed,” Bevington said. “The program gives him something to work for.”
Officials said an additional grant was secured to allow the drone program to continue later this year with a new class of students.
“It gives these kids a competitive edge as our workforce evolves. We’re really excited about what it does for these families and the prosperity it brings to the community. Hopefully, these kids will stay local and add to our community growth,” said Private Industry Council President and Chief Executive Officer Shujuane Martin.