Europe’s first purpose-built center for UAV research activities has opened in Spain. Known as Atlas (air traffic laboratory for advanced unmanned systems), the facility was officially opened on March 21 by the president of Andalucía, Susana Díaz, whose regional government has funded much of the €4.5 million ($6 million) implementation of the project from European Union allocations. Additional funding has come from national government, and the site has been developed in close cooperation with potential customers, such as Boeing.
Atlas is located near the town of Villacarrillo in Jaén province. Many potential sites were evaluated before the current location was chosen for its low environmental impact and excellent weather conditions, which typically offer 300 sunny days per year. In terms of infrastructure, Atlas currently offers a 1,969-foot tarmac runway with a 1,312-foot auxiliary grass strip. However, ground has been prepared for an extension of the main strip to 800 meters, and the go-ahead for that work is expected shortly.
Two hangars are provided for the accommodation of air vehicles, and workspace for maintenance and support activities. The site has room for further expansion in hangarage if it is required. The main operations block comprises a control tower that also houses office space, planning areas and meeting rooms. Atlas lies roughly at the center of a segregated airspace of almost 400 square miles, with a 5,000-foot upper limit. Most of the airspace is over sparsely populated olive-producing land. The tower is equipped with surveillance radar that can track UAVs and large bird activity, and provide range safety for any aircraft that might accidentally stray into the airspace.
Atlas has been created to provide a facility for testing a range of light/medium unmanned air vehicles and technologies, and can handle vehicles of up to 12-meter wingspan and 650-kilogram mtow. A key partner is the Sevilla-based CATEC research center, which not only will use the center, but also has a range of its own UAVs available for testing of systems. Through CATEC the flight test center can offer experienced pilot operators for remotely controlled vehicles, as well as a van-mounted mobile telemetry/control/datalink facility. Alternatively, customers of Atlas can bring their own operators. Atlas expects to attract business from many domestic and international organizations and companies, with Boeing expected to be the initial customer for the center’s capabilities.