The use of drones at Grottaglie airport at the centre of civil protection and defence activities – Interview with Giuseppe Acierno (DTA)

President Giuseppe Acierno, the guests at Mam (Mediterranean aerospace matching), to be held from 20 to 22 March, will include representatives of the major agencies (Asi, Esa, Eurocontrol, Easa) and multinational companies (Leonardo, Avio Aero, Airbus Italia, Boeing Italia) in the sector. What research and development, technology transfer and industrial opportunities are planned around the aerospace hub of Grottaglie airport?

‘Numerous initiatives have been conducted over the years involving members of the Aerospace Technology District and numerous non-member companies. The value of our research and development contracts has exceeded EUR 200 million and the laboratory equipment of public and private facilities has grown considerably. In Grottaglie itself, we are currently investing a further 11 million in upgrading the test bed to support the development and use of drones, airspace management and space technologies. The test bed is a research infrastructure that we are building with our three partner universities (Uniba, Unisalento, Poliba) and which is made available to companies and research organisations, the only infrastructure provided for in the national research infrastructure plan dedicated to supporting the drone industry.

What results have been achieved with the Grottaglie airport test bed so far?

“The ongoing investment will make Grottaglie one of the most advanced places in Europe, an excellence for development and testing activities of innovative solutions in the aerospace sector related to drones, and we are sure it will attract even more companies to use the infrastructure. Important results that have seen us at the centre of numerous European and national research and development initiatives, but which have also allowed us to welcome national and international companies that have used our infrastructure and expertise to test their products and services.

What are the numbers of the Apulian aerospace system in terms of employment? Are job opportunities for young science graduates in Puglia increasing thanks to the strengthening of the aerospace system?

“We have now exceeded 8,000 direct employees, to which numerous indirect ones are added, a continuous growth that we believe will not stop. It must be said, however, that this growth is strongly conditioned by the availability of human resources. We are already finding it extremely difficult to recruit young graduates in scientific subjects, and I will not hide the fact that the advent of several multinationals in the consulting and digital industry has created a reconfiguration of the supply and demand for work that sometimes penalises our SMEs, but not only them, in the search for employees. This is a very topical issue, probably a concrete and relevant limitation to the growth of the aerospace territorial system, but not only, which deserves attention and, above all, appropriate policies to foster the development of skills’.

During Mam, Grottaglie airport will be equipped as a vertiport to allow several drones to fly safely in the same area at the same time. What is the value of this demonstration?

“One of the goals to be achieved globally is to be able in the future to populate the airspace with different types of drones, operating at different altitudes, different missions, in short a crowded sky in which manned aircraft and drones will have to operate with the highest safety standards. A challenge first of all technological and then regulatory. For two days, MAM will live out precisely this, a single space, a single vertyport where our industrial and defence partners will operate simultaneously, demonstrating the level of maturity and therefore safety achieved by current technological development.

In what ways can the use of drones contribute both to simplifying logistics activities, for example in the delivery of goods, and to moving people using air taxis. Are there any ongoing experiments in Apulia and demonstrations that will be presented during Mam?

“Urban mobility will become more and more important and consequently the impact in terms of pollution will grow as it has been for years. Drones will make a significant contribution to decongesting traffic and reducing pollution, but they will also allow activities to be carried out, not necessarily passenger transport, which will improve traditional activities such as freight transport, surveillance, and monitoring. During MAM we will have fifteen of these missions, the invitation is to come and experience them live’.

Compared to the first edition of Mam, held in Grottaglie in 2021, representatives from the Army, Navy and Air Force are expected to attend, and development synergies in the use of drones between the civil and military worlds will be explored. How is the collaboration between civil and military in the defence sector developing and where does it stand?

“This is a question that is part of the current EU debate, with Europe setting itself the clear objective of “building a more capable and stronger European security and defence system” and “a more competitive industrial system”. Objectives that see the development and exploitation of dual technologies, such as aerospace, as an opportunity, and it is thus that in the various programming documents and in the recent drone strategy, Europe is committed to supporting integration and collaboration between civil and military for the development of technologies. We are part of this process together with some European partners, having built a network of test beds aware that there are many defence projects that benefit from innovative SME developments for civil drones just as civil aeronautics benefits from defence developments.

The Aerospace Technology District has been awarded the right to set up and manage an Esa Bic, i.e. an aerospace business incubator, following a call for tenders from the European Space Agency. The Esa Bic Brindisi, the only one in the Mezzogiorno, is selecting start-ups to be financed and assisted in the process of strengthening it. Are there any promising projects being assessed?

“First of all, there are many young people who took part in the call, showing how much ferment and spirit of initiative there is in the Puglia region and in southern Italy. In fact, we have also had proposals from central and northern Italy: once again, the invitation is to come and learn about the BIC’s opportunities at MAM and also find out which are the first companies that we will incubate in our Brindisi office, which we will announce on the 21st in the afternoon’.

The third day of Mam is dedicated to the spaceport. What is the state of the art in the world and the situation in Grottaglie?

The world has resumed the race towards space with new exploration goals that are primarily aimed at the Moon and Mars. This new race no longer involves the two historical great space powers of the past, but is opening up to other states and, above all, private individuals, who are increasingly involved in the “conquest of space”. Grottaglie has been aiming for years to become a national infrastructure dedicated to this new phase of economic and industrial life linked to the new space economy. But it will not be long until the advent of hypersonic flight, which will find in airport infrastructures such as Grottaglie’s a suitable place to operate. Those who will play a role in these sectors in the future will reap benefits, and it is for this reason, looking far ahead, that in 2014, the first agreement was reached with the American FAA for the construction of the Grottaglie port space’.