CLARKSDALE – A drone technology company, in partnership with the local community college here, is training people to repair drones in preparation for a factory opening in September.

Delta Southern UAS, a company that specializes in drone technology, and Coahoma Community College this week are concluding a second training class — free of charge — for people wanting to learn more about drone technology.

Bill Blackwelder, president of Delta Southern UAS, said the class is teaching the basics about drones, their safety, and how to fly them. In the past the company has held training classes for law enforcement and FAA safety training.

The factory his company is planning will build drones for those who work in agriculture, gas and power line inspectors, search and rescue and hobby enthusiasts, according to a press release.

“This is the only retail drone sector for hobbyist, commercial usage, and repairing parts from Memphis all the way to Jackson. Go ahead and try to Google this. This is the only spot,” said Blackwelder.

Bill Blackwelder Credit: Bill Blackwelder

“The drone can give you precise GPS coordinates of those type of needs as well as many different types of data sets,” said Blackwelder.

Students in the class, ranging from ages 19 to 75, are being considered to work in the new retail hobby, commercial, and repair store in front of the old Graber Gas building on 1047 Desoto Ave. A ribbon-cutting for the store was held Thursday at 11 a.m. including Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy and other local and state officials. A graduation ceremony for the students is being held Thursday evening.

Those taking the class also are being considered to work at the new drone factory, which will be located near the store. The factory initially will employ 25 to 50 people, said Blackwelder, but in time, the company hopes to employ hundreds more over the next three years. The drone facility plans paying employees between $15 and $25 an hour, he said.

A few participants in the drone class (left to right) Calvin Suggs, Adrian Johnson, Keianna Henry, Dewayne Miller, Teina Childs, Christy Floyd, Mike Self, and Rickey Smith at the Coahoma Community College Workforce Development Center Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

There are 22 participants in the evening drone training classes, which started July 31st and lasted five weeks and included 45 hours of classroom and flight time.

Clarksdale native Charles Sledge, a part-time instructor, said during the course he teaches the different components and functions of the drone, what makes it fly, and how to fly it — which includes programming flight controllers, changing settings and charging batteries.

He said engaging in this type of work can be challenging. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can burn your house down. You can hurt somebody. You can hurt yourself,” said Sledge.

Despite the challenges, for some, learning the technology, assembling and building drones was enough to stick around.

Dewayne Miller, 35, said he was excited to learn how to build a drone.

“Years ago, I never thought I’d be learning how to build a drone,” said Miller. “The technology … learning the different components of how to build a drone, how to make it fly, it’s just unique. I felt like it was challenging and its good to know how to do challenging things.”

“I was motivated to get in on the company from the ground up and I’m really interested in the technology,” said Rickey Smith, 37.  He said previously being in the Army and constantly learning about new and advanced technologies made him more intrigued about the class.

Mike Self, 31, agreed that technology as well as engineering was what he enjoyed most about the class. He went on to say that this type of industry will elevate the minds of people in this town.

“People are going to think different. We’re not just the Blues anymore,” said Self. “Now Clarksdale has actual technology.”

Others just wanted a job.

“I got into it because I was looking for employment,” said Keianna Henry, 21. “I thought ‘Ok, I can do this’ because my previous job was like a technician. … I felt from what experience or education I already had, I could apply it to this job, so I saw it as an equal opportunity for me.”

Having hands-on instructors and a lot of flight time were a plus, too.

“What I liked most was the instructors. It was hands-on. It was one-on-one. It was smooth, I guess you could say,” said Christy Floyd, 23. “I liked the flight time of course. Everyone liked flight time. I just liked to get out there and fly the little drone.”

Students waiting to fly drones. Credit: Bill Blackwelder

“I want to do it all over again, especially the flying. I want to do it all over again with the same instructors,” said Teina Childs, 32.

She added: “It wasn’t like here’s a book, learn. It was ‘this right here is what you have to do in order to put this component with this component to match this component to that.’ It was really everybody learning everything.”

Calvin Suggs, 65, said he’s been working for more than 40 years, and despite his age, he loves learning.

“When we first came to the class, the first thing I noticed that assembling the drone and putting it together, didn’t have any instructions,” said Suggs.

“When the instructors got ready to show us what to do and going over it over and over again, it allowed different groups to sit down and build that drone. And once we built a drone, what was so exciting was that the drone flew. We programmed it and everything on it worked right so I’m just excited about it.”

Mayor Chuck Espy gives his blessing for the new drone manufacturing facility in Clarksdale. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Adrian Johnson, 26, agreed that she enjoyed having a one-on-one experience, but having a comfortable environment was the “next best thing” for her.

“I enjoyed being around the classmates. It was never a dull moment,” she said. “Everybody got along very well. It was just like everyday we came to class we were comfortable. We were just like family.”

Milton Williams, director of operations for the company, said this type of work is important for the community.

“Clarksdale is a city that is in dying need of opportunity. Delta Southern brings opportunities to Clarksdale,” said Williams. “With this type of company period, not only will it educate the public, but it will continue to grow. I think it’s a good start.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.