Alvaro Mas
Credit: Koren Helbig

MADRID, Spain — Every day at around 2 p.m., working Spaniards typically head out to long lunches or afternoon siestas. Not Alvaro Mas, however.

That’s when the soft-spoken travel agent from Colmenar Viejo near the capital retires to a cavernous garage under his suburban home where he gets to work tinkering with miniature remote-controlled helicopters and planes littering the floor.

They’re no child’s toys, but highly specialized drones that can sell for almost $30,000.

“This is my life," he says. "We spend a lot of money and a lot of time testing. I don't have much time to sleep each day."

He's hardly alone.

Mas is part of an industry providing drones for civil applications that’s taken off across Spain in recent years, despite the ongoing economic crisis, as developers capitalize on the wide open spaces and almost perpetually sunny weather of the country’s south — perfect conditions for flying and testing.

Although figures for Spain are unclear, a study by defense consultancy The Teal Group last year estimated current global sales are around $5.2 billion a year, and expected to almost double to $11.6 billion over the next decade.

Armed with built-in cameras and sensors, custom-built unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, produced by Mas and other small Spanish companies can map the topography of mines and mountains, monitor crops and help fight fires in remote areas.

The famed Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia has also used them as a cheap alternative to helicopters and cranes to film difficult aerial scenes.

But despite their early success, developers know their industry has an image problem: Many people associate drones with war. Others have concerns about privacy violations and other issues.

Last May, Mas and his business partner Carlos Dominique joined other stakeholders to launch an association to publicize drones’ myriad civil applications. The group is also working with the authorities to create a legal framework that would protect the industry’s development.

“Words like ‘explosions, kill, spy, accident and drugs’ are unfortunately much more attractive than talking about drones as a new tool that can help in many areas like communication in devastated zones, contamination control outside factories and disaster zone evaluations,” Mas says. “But it’s certain these civil uses will become more common in the future.”

Spain builds controversial military drones, too.

Last year, Spanish engineers created spy planes disguised as life-like birds of prey for covert surveillance missions and anti-drug trafficking operations. The remote-controlled aircraft built by the Madrid-based company Expal, similar to a robotic bird made for the US Army, is now being tested for Spanish military use after Defense Minister Pedro Morenes last August declared drones “the future” of the nation’s air force.

Nevertheless, controlling unmanned aircraft remains a largely grey legal area in Spain, which has few laws governing their use. Although the aviation authorities can grant authorization for experiments, they rarely do, and some companies had pushed ahead with testing regardless — without explicit permission but also with no outright ban. That changed this month, when the government issued a warning expressly prohibiting commercial and professional flights for the time being.

“This is Spain and Spain is a little different,” Mas says by way of explanation.

His company has been frustrated by the government’s apparent support for the industry even as an outdated law banning the use of drones for anything beyond hobby purposes makes legal test flights of civil drones almost impossible.

As a safeguard, his company sources components carrying at least some kind of certification, even if it’s recognized only by faraway governments such as New Zealand’s.

“We try to be on the legal side on each component we use because this will make it easier to cover any kind of regulation that could be ready in the near future,” he says. “We are the most legal in this non-legal system.”

Military drones are the only fully regulated kind in Spain under a law introduced in 2012. It provides the first definition of unmanned aircraft in Spanish legislation and stipulates that anyone operating one must be a fully accredited military pilot.

But this year promises a raft of new laws from the Spanish government and the European Union. Work on a cooperative European approach began in 2010 to help address the multitude of security, privacy and cross-border issues facing member states.

There’s been progress on a roadmap that would safely integrate drones into European airspace from 2016, with hopes for laws governing drones weighing under 55 pounds to be approved by the end of the year.

Jose Luis Lorente Howell, a lawyer with the London-based international firm Bird & Bird who specializes in aviation law, says the Spanish government is working to close its own legal loopholes and is expected to release laws on non-military drones in June after consulting with stakeholders last summer.

Spain’s data protection agency is also rumored to be investigating privacy issues and drafting laws on data protection.

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Despite the privacy, legal and safety headaches, Spain’s drone development sector has profited from multimillion-dollar grants from cash-strapped regional governments as the race toward pilotless planes heats up across the globe.

Andalusia, in southern Spain, is leading the charge, with a new major testing facility in Huelva along the Gulf of Cadiz slated to open next year. Billed as “the most advanced center of its kind in Europe,” the $55-million, 185-acre center will create 250 jobs and allow testing of large, technologically advanced drones. Only Britain and Sweden have similar facilities.

Some 180 miles further east in Andalusia’s Jaen province lies the balmy city of Villacarrillo, which boasts excellent flying conditions with around 300 sunny days each year. A major testing facility for smaller aircraft opened there last month following a $5.7 million investment by the regional government. The Air Traffic Laboratory for Advanced Systems, or Atlas, has already signed a collaboration deal with Boeing, which is expected to begin its own flight tests there soon.

Lorente Howell says those developments position Spain at the forefront of drone construction. “There is a set of privacy issues that must be dealt with but the benefits are incredible,” he says. “This is the future and it’s here to stay.” 

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