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Galicia airfield to become €55-million drone research center

Defense Ministry and regional government to pay firms to conduct studies at ex-Nazi base

Construction work at the airfield in Castro de Rei, Lugo province. Ampliar foto
Construction work at the airfield in Castro de Rei, Lugo province.

An airfield built by the Nazis in 1943 in Castro de Rei, Lugo province, because of its strategic location near the sea will become one of Spain’s largest drone research centers for private industry, according to officials involved in the project.

With funding from the Galicia regional government and the Defense Ministry’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA), the center will be leased to multinational companies so that they can explore how drone technology can be improved for commercial and civilian purposes.

The airfield will not become a secret military site, say Defense and Xunta officials

The Rozas Aero Transport Research Center (CIAR) will also be one of the few centers in Europe dedicated to researching these unmanned aircraft.

Both Defense Ministry officials and members of the Galician government (Xunta) were quick to point out that the airfield will not become a secret military site. Nevertheless, they acknowledged that it could prove difficult to prevent the companies chosen to take part in this new research project from using the results of their studies for eventual military purposes.

Civilian drones are now employed in various fields, including environmental monitoring, conservation, maritime protection, firefighting and private security.

A good many of the nine firms that have presented bids to lease space at the site hold defense industry contracts. The candidates are Thales Programas de Electrónica y Comunicaciones; Boeing Research and Technology; Airbus; Elbit Systems; Inaer Helicópteros; Agustawestland, Spa and Telespazio Iberica; Indra; Everis Aeroespacial y Defensa, and UTE Uavs Galicia.

The Xunta and INTA will inject at least €55 million into the project, with most of the money coming from the regional government.

Galician officials and INTA have spent €10 million in refitting the airfield while the Xunta is expected to spend an additional €20 million over the next five years to equip the site.

Galicia’s innovation office, Axencia Galega de Innovación, has also committed around €25 million, or more “if there are offers of particular interest,” to at least one of the companies, said its director Manuel Varela.

“These types of craft have enormous civilian capabilities and we want Galicia to play a role in this huge market that is just opening,” he said.

Xunta officials will pay the selected candidates to carry out their research and provide them with the necessary equipment. They will also guarantee them security and confidentiality to conduct their tests.

In return, the Xunta will receive the patents that are registered and will be able to use the technology free of cost under a non-exclusive contract.

“We are not interested in exclusivity,” said Varela. “The Xunta is not a business, but what interests us is that they sell the research to as many people as they can.”

Civilian drones are used for environmental monitoring, firefighting and private security

Control over the use of the technology developed at Rozas will also be negotiated with the individual firms.

Because the center is funded in part by the European Union and regional government, which has no defense budget, companies will be prohibited from carrying out work solely for military purposes.

An agreement signed between INTA and the Xunta also states that “the equipment and research into project applications are to be used for civilian purposes.”

Varela said the regional government would closely monitor all the subsidies given to companies that are selected. “In any case, what will be researched at Rozas is very specific, and normally wouldn’t apply in the military environment, which by the way is far more advanced.”

Still some local lawmakers are questioning the use of public funds for this type of research.

“This is a perverse strategy because they are going to put a good amount of public money at the service of private multinationals so that they can develop their products, while taking advantage of that blurry line between civilian and military use,” said Ramón Vázquez, deputy for the Alternative Galician Left (AGE).

“An unarmed tank can also be considered a civilian vehicle.”

Rafael González, head of research and development at INTA, said “without a question” that there would not be any research conducted at Rozas with “a direct military use.”

Recently, the Spanish army used Rozas, which belongs to INTA, to test an Israeli-made drone that is used in military missions in Afghanistan.

English version by Martin Delfín.