Isabel Maestre, Director, State Agency for Air Safety (AESA – Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aérea)
“The aviation sector has grown exponentially over the last ten years and the figures suggest it will continue to do so over the coming years.”
The State Agency for Air Safety celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. You’ve been in charge of the agency since its inception. How has this agency grown and evolved over this decade?
Ten years ago, the state took the decision to modernise the services provided to the aviation industry and that’s when the agency was set up. It became the Aeronautical Authority and provides a response to the sector’s needs, with whom we’ve always tried to work together, attempting to cover their needs and changes. However, as a public agency, we are also charged with providing proper attention to citizens.
The aviation sector has grown exponentially over the last ten years and the figures suggest it will continue to do so over the coming years. As a matter of fact, that increase in air traffic constitutes some of the future’s most important challenges, like continuing to maintain safety parameters. To achieve this, adequate supervision is necessary, as is having management mechanisms that can provide high levels of service quality by the administration.
That growth in the industry has also involved a broadening of the agency’s powers, including the air navigation system’s economic supervision, the supervision of investments and service quality levels at Aena’s airports, etc. To sum up, AESA has evolved from a safety supervisory authority to an aviation authority.
Despite the broadening of its powers, AESA’s human resources have remained steady. This is a problem affecting the public sector. It is difficult to recruit and retain talent when the sector’s labour market is on the rise. Thus, the first thing we did to carry out things as efficiently and effectively as possible was to re-engineer processes in order to reduce the administrative paperwork affecting companies and AESA within the framework of European and Spanish legislation and regulations.
We also redistributed activities among AESA’s different departments, gearing them to customers and their way of working. The relationships of companies with AESA are more efficient. Moreover, we created services portfolios, making an undertaking to our customers (companies, professionals, citizens, etc.) to deal with their needs quickly. And all this had to be done with the budget laid down by the Ministry of Finance.
According to AESA’s most recent data, there are 3,041 RPAS operators in Spain. This is a sector undergoing constant growth which Spain wants to lead, an objective to which the Drone Development Strategic Plan 2018-2021 provides a response. This plan was presented by the Ministry of Public Works, which will also implement the sector’s new regulation set out in the Royal Decree approved last December. What’s new in the strategic plan and the new regulatory framework?
The new regulatory framework provides a response to the sector’s demands concerning operational scenarios. It’s in line with other countries’ regulations and with the future European regulation. In addition, the AESA has set up the RPA Committee, in which the entire sector participates to develop the guidelines of the new Royal Decree and help its implementation.
The new regulation sets forth the requirements so drone operators can perform activities safely in environments where it had not been possible to date, such as flying over areas with buildings, open-air congregations of people and night flights. However, in order to do so, a safety study on the operation has to be conducted and AESA’s prior authorisation is necessary, along with other requirements.
Operations are also allowed in controlled airspace. In this case, however, some personnel training and equipment requirements are mandatory, as is an aeronautical safety study conducted jointly with the air traffic services provider and the AESA’s prior authorisation.
This Royal Decree also contains measures on the recreational use of drones, setting forth a series of constraints aimed at ensuring safety of the airspace and citizens. Thus, in general, these flights have to be done away from urban environments (unless the drone weighs less than 250 grams) during the day and at least eight kilometres from airports. The drone must always be in sight and fly at a height of no more than 120 metres from the ground in suitable weather conditions (no fog, no rain and no wind) in controlled airspace and without endangering people and goods on the ground.
Along with other measures, the strategic plan envisages the creation of a centre of excellence which will promote research, as well as a drone laboratory. In this regard, the AESA has already signed an agreement with the US Assure Centre of Excellence to work jointly on the development of technology solutions and procedures to face the challenges drones will broach to aviation. On what specific areas are you working jointly?
It’s true that the agency has a collaboration agreement with the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) Assure Centre of Excellence and the University of Mississippi, which will enable us to pool our efforts, support training and enhance access to R&D and innovation knowledge, along with establishing contact with the sector on both sides of the Atlantic to foster talent and improve the training of new professionals with a real and global view of the drone sector. The industry will benefit from being able to count on real innovation that is in touch with reality and provide support to research in areas of special interest.
But, aside from that agreement, the AESA set up a Drone Centre of Excellence last January, of which the industry and universities from part. It aims to support the definition of future strategies and research and development lines in this sector.
This new centre of excellence is a clear wager the AESA has placed on R&D, which is in keeping with the challenges drones are setting for the aeronautical industry. The agency has therefore encouraged and led this research and development network, which is coordinated and supported by universities and the industry, since research is needed for both decision-making and the identification of solutions.
Traditionally, the industry and society’s demands have been one step ahead of regulation. In this case, however, the AESA wants to go hand in hand with them to regulate safely and fairly. The Drone Centre of Excellence will allow the agency to have access to the latest available research, identify upcoming problems and the industry’s state of the art, detect regulatory needs early and analyse their impact.
One of the top priorities will be to establish several lines of research, development and innovation. To do so, the centre will have a committee of independent experts who will analyse the different issues broached.
A document was signed at the World ATM Congress held in Madrid last March which sets out the actions needed to implement the Single European Sky in Spain. In what way is this programme improving the European air traffic management system?
The Local Single Sky Implementation Plan (LSSIP) — in which Enaire, AENA, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation the Air Force are also participating — is signed each year and specifies the actions planned and carried out to achieve the national implementation of European objectives. This plan is the tool through which the coherence and convergence of the different national plans can be monitored to ensure the air navigation system’s evolution with a view to the Single European Sky.
The third-level Implementation Plan of the Master ATM Plan is updated annually by SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU), which is a joint air transport service of the European Community under the EU’s Single European Sky initiative. Its aim is to implement a high-performance air navigation system by 2020 which can manage the rise in air traffic demand forecast for the coming years more efficiently.
Integrating unmanned aircraft systems rapidly, safely and efficiently into our airspace is one of the challenges being worked on. Minister De la Serna predicts that drones will be fully integrated into the airspace by 2030. Is Spain more advanced than other European countries at a regulatory level?
Spain has been one of the pioneering countries in the development of drone regulations in Europe and at an international level. We have had a regulation since 2014 and we are now beginning to implement a new broader and more comprehensive regulation before the European regulation. We therefore need to ensure that the Spanish regulation is properly implemented. Safety, of course, always has to be the very top priority.
The European regulation will be in line with the Spanish regulation and with the regulation of other countries that have developed their regulations most. We hope that when it is implemented, the adaptations needed will be minimal. We’re sure it won’t be traumatic for the sector, seeing as we’re actively working on the drafting of that European regulation and have a presence in all the work groups.
Once the European regulation is in force, all European countries will have to implement it. From then on, things will pan out depending on the evolution of technology and of the sector itself, with safety always being regarded as the very top priority. When will it be? We’re not sure. These are only forecasts, but Spain will surely be fully ready for it when the time comes.