March 28, 2014      

Europe’s first flight center specifically designed to test unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) opened in Spain. The ATLAS (Air Traffic Laboratory for Advanced unmanned Systems) facility, Located in Herrera, Spain, is designed for testing light/medium drones and can handle UAVs up to 12-meter wingspan.

The regional government, Junta de AndalucIa, has funded much of the ?4.5 million ($6 million) project from European Union allocations, with more funding coming from the national government.

Located in Herrera, Spain, ATLAS features a main runway of more than 2,600 feet and an auxiliary grass runway and an Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower with approach radar and communications room to simulate what drone operations in Europe will look like within commercial airspace.

According to ATLAS, many potential sites were evaluated, but the current location was chosen for its “low environmental impact and excellent weather conditions, which typically offer 300 sunny days per year.”

ATLAS already has an agreement with Boeing Research & Technology-Europe that allows it to perform its own flight tests.

President of Junta de AndalucIa, Susana DIaz, during the ATLAS opening ceremonies.

Some of the applications researchers are looking to test include:

  • Management of natural disasters
  • Fires and environmental accidents
  • Ground and sea traffic surveillance
  • Support to agriculture and forest applications
  • Air photography, cinematography, cartography
  • Defense, security and civil protection operation

“In particular, ATLAS will carry out operations with light and tactical UAVs and will validate navigation technologies, aircraft monitoring as well as new techniques, tests, certifications for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and qualification of pilots, operators and MRO mechanics for this kind of aerial systems,” ATLAS says in a statement.

CATEC, a Sevilla, Spain-based research center, is playing a key role in the ATLAS facility. Not only will it use the center, it also has its own UAVs that are available for testing. Through CATEC, the ATLAS flight test center can offer experienced pilot operators for remotely-controlled vehicles, as well as a van-mounted mobile telemetry/control/datalink facility.

More Drone Test Centers Popping Up

Worldwide sales of civilian and military drones will reach $89 billion during the next decade, according to the Teal Group Corp. So expect more drone test centers to pop up all over the world.

In Dec. 2013, the United States approved drone test centers in six states, approving bids from Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. This was one of the first U.S. regulatory moves to begin integrating unmanned aircraft with piloted planes and helicopters.

According to a study by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, drone testing may produce $260 million in economic impact in Texas over the next decade, including 1,200 jobs. And there will be nearly 250,000 civilian and military drones in the U.S. by 2035, according to the Department of Transportation.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires test sited to maintain records of devices flying at the facility, create a written plan for how data collected by airborne vehicles will be used and retained, and conduct a yearly privacy review.