BCN Drone Center, 2,500 football camps for your drone

After three years, the facilities located in Moià are one of 10 drone flying centres in the world and has welcomed 400 professionals from 60 countries

A drone can provide a surprising aerial view of a city like Barcelona, but the functions of these small remote-controlled unmanned flying objects go much further than that. These sophisticated devices can detect anti-personnel mines in Bosnia, fly over Lorca to appraise the effects of an earth tremor, locate the focal point of a fire or identify the movement of river sediment in the Delta de l'Ebre. The possibilities of their high-definition cameras and aerial movement are infinite, something they know well at the BCN Drone Center. Located in Moià, in Barcelona, it is one of 10 drone test centres in the world, along with facilities in Finland, Sweden, Canada or Iceland.

Jordi Santacana, founder of the BCN Drone Center, had a company importing and exporting aeronautic material for some time, while as hobby he built remote-controlled planes similar to drones when the word "drone" didn't even exist. One day, when he was experimenting at the Moià airfield, a top executive from the Indra company landed. Thanks to him, in 2003 he set up CATUAV, a company dedicated exclusively to drones. There are now six people on the team, including industrial, aeronautical and electrical engineers, marketing staff and professionals from other disciplines.

Marc Beltran is an aeronautical engineer, Business Development manager and one of the four partners behind the BCN Drone Center. "Sixteen years ago we began as CATUAV - standing for, Catalonia and UAV, which means 'drone'- with the aim of designing, building and operating drones. The Moià centre was one of the first in Europe to appear, and today we are one of the places with the most experience in the sector," he says.

Moià, the best location
Of all the locations they considered for the centre, Moià ended up as the one that had the best conditions. "We did tests at the Moià airfield, but our presence there was not compatible with the training of the pilots. We needed a place exclusively for drones. Moià was ideal; an unpopulated place only an hour from Barcelona. It was a 900-metre high zone and there was no wind or fog, the main enemies of drones," he says. So, "with private capital and no outside help at all," we bought the plot. The next step was to apply to Madrid for its designation as segregated air space, only for drones.

The Moià centre is 25 square kilometres, the equivalent to 2,500 football fields. It has a bioclimatic and self-sustainable building: 100% of the energy is generated by solar panels and aerogenerators (wind turbines). The water is collected from rain and the heating comes from burning wood.

The centre's aim is to offer services and facilities, to sell drones and provide training to learn to be a pilot of these small remote-controlled unmanned flying objects. "Our intention is to provide a response to a specific public demand. There are circuits to test cars and motorbikes, but until now there was nowhere to test out drones," he says. They also provide a consultancy service to companies and offer their engineers by the hour.

Clients all over the world
In the centre's three years, the facilities have welcomed more than 400 professionals from 60 countries to attend week-long training courses that the centre offers to anyone who wants to learn to pilot a drone, and which cost 1,350 euros, with accommodation included. "We have had very unique people: a high-ranking UN official, a Harvard professor, managers from natural parks in Kenya that want to use drones to track elephants, staff from Russian space centres....," says Beltran.

In this time, the centre has continued to evolve and incorporate new services. It now has larger, longer-range drones, as well as a new control centre, so that you do not need to go outside to fly the drone. They have also a added an outdoor laboratory, to do tests on drone optics and sensors, and a helipad, where the drones known as multicopters can land.

Operational base of the European Space Agency
However, the most recent highlight is the agreement they have reached with the European Space Agency and the Generalitat de Catalunya, which turns the Moià drone centre into an operational test base for all the drone companies in the international organisation into the Catalonia Smart Drones project. In other words, from now on, more than 400 European start-ups from the Business Incubation Center related to space will be able to test their drones in Catalonia.

"We are now a drone flying centre of reference, and we are moving towards becoming a world hub. We want to share knowledge and be unique in the world. A pole of attraction," says the partner.

Drones with 14 hours range
There are two types of drones. "The multicopter is the best-known of all, and what most people use. It is the most basic type and we use them to take video of the landscape. The fixed-wing drones are the others. They look like planes and have more range. While the multicopter lasts 20 minutes at the most, the other type can last from an hour to 14 hours. The fact it has more range allows us to cover more hectares," Beltran stresses.

Today, large companies like Facebook and Google are buying fixed-wing drones with 40-metre spans so that they can reach the stratosphere, 30 km high, with solar panels on their wings. "They can fly for months with the aim of carrying 4G to remote areas where there is no Internet," he says.

It must be remembered that drones cannot fly over urban areas, nor over large concentrations of people. Nor can they fly within a 15-kilometre radius of Barcelona Airport. Meanwhile, the highest they are allowed to fly is 120 metres, and the pilots cannot be more than 500 metres away from their drones, warns the BCN Drone Center.
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