The aeronautics and aerospace sector is probably one of the most unknown in Aragon, however its importance is growing and has a very strong power such as Teruel Airport and about twenty partners of different kinds. Since a few months ago, the engineer Inés Villa is the managing director of the aeronautics and aerospace cluster of Aragon (AERA) and through this interview we delve into this sector that accounts for 3% of Aragon’s GDP, which has a turnover of 1,300 million euros and generates about 2,000 direct jobs and about twice as many indirect jobs.
Could you tell us about your professional background before taking this position?
I am an industrial technical engineer, I did my bachelor’s degree in mechatronics in Holland. There I did my end-of-degree project on renewable energies, which was not very well developed at that time. My first job was as a consultant in an international consultancy firm here in Zaragoza called MS&F Associates and I learned a lot about renewable energy projects, European subsidy management, consortium formation, etc.
Then I worked in a national center of bioengineering and biomedicine, in research projects, which was very rewarding because you do research projects for people.
Then I worked at the University of Oviedo, in another robotics group and in technology consulting. I worked at the former Everis, which is now called NTT DATA, which is a very powerful technology company where I learned about R+D+i monetization.
My last job has been in CIRCE Foundation, which is the reference center in Aragon for renewable energies, in the markets department.
How have these first months as managing director of AERA been?
They have been intense and entertaining because the aeronautical and aerospace sector is a great unknown, at least in our land. We have other types of sectors that are better known and more implemented. It is being, well, a complicated landing but very exciting and with a great desire to continue learning. Especially now these first months are learning.
Could you give us an X-ray of the aeronautics and aerospace sector?
I said that it is not very well known, but it is true that at least for me it was not because I was involved in other types of research projects and the aeronautical and aerospace sector is hermetic and very qualified and has other types of expertise.
The X-ray would tell you that it has a turnover of around 1,300 million euros in Aragon, generates about 2,000 direct jobs and in indirect jobs we could even double it.
Many companies are not exclusively dedicated to this sector, but we have a very strong power such as Teruel airport, but it is a Community that has three airports, each one in a province, each one with its differences. It is a booming sector.
What does this sector represent in terms of GDP?
Approximately around 3% in Aragon.
What is AERA and how does it work to promote the aerospace and aeronautical sector in Aragon?
AERA is the Aragonese Aeronautical Association, we are the aeronautical and aerospace cluster. We have been in existence for 15 years, next year is our anniversary. I understand that it was the first cluster to be formed, it is the longest-lived cluster in Aragon and we were working at that time with our 20 partners, of different kinds.
We have two companies dedicated to drones: ACG Salvamento y Rescate and Delsat Aeronautics International; then in aircraft manufacturing there is Aerometallic Tarazona We have companies dedicated to precision machining such as: Construcciones Mecánicas Aragonesas, Alot Metal, UMEC, MECANUS, Talleres Sambia.
We have an adhesives company, Comercial Edizar; a ship recycling company, Aviation International Recycling; a supplies company, Suministros Industriales Jalón; and an oil and lubricants company, Eco Oil. We also have Vector 0 Metrología SL, dedicated to 3D vision, Vea Global consultancy and institutions such as the Consorcio del Aeródromo/Aeropuerto de Teruel, the University of Zaragoza, the Instituto Tecnológico de Aragón, Aragón Exterior and the Consejo Aragonés de Cámaras de Comercio e Industria (Aragonese Council of Chambers of Commerce and Industry).
In Aragon we have reference companies, such as TARMAC Aerosnave and PLD Space, which is the first company to have successfully launched the first Spanish rocket.
What are the pillars on which the cluster’s activity is based?
Fundamentally we work on collaborative research projects, we try that our companies learn with us, we try the win-win formula, that is to say, that our companies win and that our cluster can also nourish itself with more knowledge. We attend fairs and events that can generate business for our partners. We have our sights set on France, where the core of the aeronautics industry is located, to learn about trends. Then in Aragon we are very quick to learn, so the intention is to bring it to Zaragoza and continue learning.
What are your long-term objectives?
In the end, in the future of aeronautics and aerospace we have a very wide range: from aerotaxis, artificial intelligence technologies, hydrogen technologies, electric mobility of the future… All these technologies that now seem very futuristic to us, even some a bit Martian, are the ones we are working on now.
We must always keep our eyes on the future and in aeronautics it is like this: you can have an idea, it costs a lot of time to develop it, it takes time to implement it and you have to start from now. I would say that PLD Space is going to make Spain one of the 10 countries in the world that send cargo to space, that will position us.
And in the short and medium term?
Our drone companies, of which we have two (ACG Dron and Densat) are working a lot on data collection, even in sectors that are not aeronautical (fire or pest surveillance, other aspects). There is no doubt that drones are a must.
What makes Teruel a good location for the future space agency?
Teruel has everything: terrestrial space, fantastic weather conditions in terms of humidity, a business network around it. If we look back ten years ago, the airport is what it was and what it is now. Let’s say that Teruel is per se a firm candidate and has everything the sector demands: it has very powerful companies, it has a very powerful know-how, we have Galáctica, CEFCA, all the help of the Government… The administrations from the very first minute were willing to collaborate with AERA to work together in a common brief to bet on Teruel as a candidate. We have a lot of wealth in the field.
How does the cluster support Teruel’s candidacy?
From minute one, we with the administrations and companies in the sector began to collaborate to present this candidacy. We collaborate both in diffusion and if there are events putting the Teruel brand, trying to energize the issue and also even talking to our counterparts in other cities in Spain to wish them luck and learn a little. In the end, the positioning of Teruel is already a win-win situation.
What would it mean for ERA if Teruel became the headquarters of the space agency?
It would be a before and after. For us it would be an exponential growth and, above all, a reason to rejoice because they are committed to the sector and to our growth.
The cluster was born 15 years ago, how has the sector changed since then?
I could tell you that fifteen years ago artificial intelligence, electric mobility, the internet of things and digitalization were still in their infancy. It has evolved so fast that I can’t even give you data on everything that has changed.
There were not so many perspectives regarding environmental sustainability. Now we are all concerned about it, we have gone through a pandemic, we have realized how important it is to move to other countries in the world. How necessary it is for both people and cargo. In the end we have realized that it is a sector that is needed.
What milestones would you highlight in the history of the cluster?
Its formation is already a milestone: the fact that five companies here in Aragon considered that a cluster was necessary, and also in this sector, let’s say that it was a very important push. Then there was a change of presidency that I think was different, which made us position ourselves a little more because in the end we could look at Teruel airport as a clear example that in Aragon there is a lot of wealth and another fundamental milestone has been the projects we are doing now: entering into hydrogen issues, making issues of digital twins … for me the current projects are fundamental.
How does concern for the environment influence your work?
There is no doubt that the environment concerns us all and we have to analyze new technologies so that we are not so polluting to our planet. How do we work on it? Well, a zero-polluting oil company has now joined the cluster and its viability is being analyzed. We are trying to invest in projects that do not generate so much pollution: other types of batteries, technologies or hydrogen batteries, as I mentioned before, not only for airplanes, but also for drones. In the end, for all mobility.
What potential does Aragon have as a territory to be a leader in these sectors?
We have a lot of SMEs and that is fantastic because in the end it positions you to be agile and fast. We are perfectly located: we are in the north, we are close to the three communities that are the most important in the sector, such as Madrid, the Basque Country and Catalonia. In addition, here in Aragon we have a fantastic automotive culture and we learn a lot from it. So, being able to have an example that you can refer to is also a reason for learning.
What jobs related to this sector do you think will be most in demand in the coming years?
Fundamentally engineers, mathematicians for the development of algorithms, physicists and then I think, but this is a request, I think we are leaving a little aside the subject of Humanities, that someone leads us a little with heart.
What are your goals for this new stage?
I would like the companies that are in Aragon to unite, that together we will listen to each other better, that we will be listened to more outside, that we do not forget that many times we think that what comes from outside is better than what comes from inside and it is not so. In the end we have to believe it and for me it is fundamental that we are all together to achieve it and that we nourish each other.