Cutting-edge technology combined with an airspace unique in the UK are helping the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre to thrive – with plans to develop the Snowdonia Enterprise Zone site as an international centre of excellence for the next generation of manned and unmanned aircraft systems.
2016 has seen the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre host trials of innovative technology vital to environmental monitoring and flood prevention teams thanks to the safe operating environment at Llanbedr Airfield, and the 7,100sq km of segregated airspace, stretching out over Cardigan Bay.
The airfield has facilities which make it a prime test location for unmanned aircraft as part of the broader Wales Unmanned Systems environment, but Llanbedr is also a front-runner to become a UK spaceport site. An operational spaceport would provide the whole of the UK with infrastructure for the aerospace industry – and could mean that in the future spaceplanes carrying passengers and small satellites into space are launched from the Llanbedr runway.
At the heart of the National Park, the Snowdonia Enterprise Zone is a priority area for the Welsh government. It’s home to two unique sites tailor-made for low carbon energy, ICT or aerospace-related businesses – at Llanbedr and Trawsfynydd. Both sites have Tier 1 Area status meaning that some of the UK’s highest levels of financial support can be available.
Snowdonia Aerospace Chief Executive Lee Paul said, “The past 18 months have been about creating the right operating environment, completing the first phase of investment and getting us ready for the future. Already the site has been used to test civil and military craft – wide ranging campaigns from fisheries enforcement projects to hosting a multinational military training exercise involving Malaysian, Japanese and US forces.
“We hope that new developments in 2017 will mean that Llanbedr is even more appealing to world-wide investment. We are now working with partners to put together a package of investments such as on site accommodation, better site access and licensing to instil even greater investor confidence.”
The airfield at Llanbedr has all the attributes of a former RAF site, plus state-of-the-art facilities following significant investment with more already underway.
Lee Paul continued, “This year (2016), the site has been used by civil and defence bodies but we’re also seeing the much-needed economic benefits that businesses are bringing to the area. We are supporting 15 companies and 50 jobs on site and our analysis suggests that the next phase of investment could see the site support over 100 jobs and deliver some £4.2m to the local economy.
“We’re really pushing the limits of what we can do at the airfield. In the summer – we were proud to be the site of a Guinness World Record first – setting the land speed record for a remote-control car. We’ve established links with commercially-focussed, research universities like Bangor, Aberystwyth and Manchester with specialist areas including ICT, Space, Electronic Engineering and Autonomous Systems.
“Unmanned aircraft, civil drone development and testing along with supporting the UK military defence training programme are two of the core activities scheduled for the future here. The facilities we are developing together with the unique environment make Llanbedr a “one off” venue for special projects and ideal for research and development and testing and evaluation.
“Thanks to an EE trial this year too, a UK first, we are maximising our Ultrafast Broadband connectivity to provide 4G mobile coverage on site ensuring that our customers have world class service on demand.”
In October Llanbedr hosted an international military operation. Exercise ‘Vambrace Warrior’ saw the British Army join together with multinational units from Malaysia, Japan, Ireland, the US Army and the US Marines in a special mock-training exercise.
A spokesperson for the British Army explained, “The exercise allowed us to develop our operational role including long range patrols and advanced observation skills. We were joined by British air defence units making this the largest UK air deployment since 2003. The unique environment and facilities at Snowdonia Aerospace Centre enabled this exercise to become a huge success.”
Jeremy Howitt, UAS Campaigns Manager for multinational defence technology company QinetiQ said, “Wales provides the perfect environment for the development, testing and training of the latest innovations in aerospace and the first-class facilities at the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre are ideally suited for all types of manned, unmanned and spaceplane activities. We’re excited about the potential for the commercial uses of unmanned aviation and the economic and environmental benefits this new technology can bring to Wales and the UK.”
Looking ahead to 2017, Lee Paul outlined the importance of ongoing investment and working with the local community. He added, “We know that traffic through the village of Llanbedr can be gridlock at times which is why we’re working with Gwynedd Council. Better access combined with our future development plans for the site is important in generating investor confidence in Llanbedr.
“We are creating a world class facility. Our recent hangar refurbishment and new fuelling capability have been important for that goal. Users of the site have been impressed by the facilities. We want to support future users so we’re also developing accommodation for those running test campaigns.”
For the private-sector led Snowdonia Enterprise Zone board, the priority is now on creating sustainable long-term employment opportunities in Meirionnydd and on the Llanbedr site, and for spreading the word world-wide about the unique possibilities at Snowdonia Aerospace Centre.
Chair of Snowdonia Enterprise Zone Advisory Board, John Idris Jones added, “We know that these are challenging times for Meirionnydd, with limited private sector investment combined with the loss of decommissioning jobs at Trawsfynydd. Snowdonia Aerospace Centre offers real potential for sustainable, well paid jobs going forward and the public and private sector partners are pulling together to grasp the opportunity. From the inception of the zones in 2012/13 there has been major investments in roads, development sites, offices and manufacturing units across Wales.
“Investment into the Snowdonia Enterprise Zone is helping support the development of skills, the capacity for research and development with the long term aim of creating and safeguarding new jobs for the area.”
For Chief Executive Lee Paul, Llanbedr is positioned to support major changes UK Defence forces are experiencing. He concluded: “With the recent announcements to reduce the current MOD landholdings across the country and the closure of several bases, including a number of airfields and training camps, we are offering a cost-effective solution to support the Defence industry and their ongoing training requirements.”