Earlier this year, a “SW-4 Solo” helicopter produced by Italian aerospace group Leonardo successfully completed its first unmanned flight, taking off and landing at the Taranto-Grottaglie airport in the southern Italian region of Apulia after 45 minutes simulating a surveillance mission.

The Taranto-Grottaglie airport lies within the Apulian Aerospace District – a network of industrial companies, research centres and universities – that have made Apulia a leader in aerospace. The maiden unmanned “SW-4 Solo” flight was the fruit of a collaboration dating back to 2015 between the district, Leonardo and local airport company Aeroporti di Puglia for the “Grottaglie Test Bed”, which aims to test procedures and help develop norms for unmanned flights.

The Apulian Aerospace District was established a decade ago and is composed of over 80 small, medium and large-sized companies, the latter including the likes of Leonardo and space propulsion company Avio. The district is a regular attendee at the Paris and Farnborough air shows, the most important international trade fair appointments for the sector, and not surprisingly Apulia’s aerospace business is also increasingly a global one. The value of Apulian aerospace exports in 2017 amounted to about €619 million, according to data from the Italian Trade Agency, up 8.4% on the year earlier and some 57% above the level seen in 2012.

Among the companies helping to put Apulia on the international aerospace map are Monopoli-based Blackshape Aircraft, which produces high performance two seater carbon fibre aircraft for leisure aviation and military training. Founded in 2009 by two high school friends, Blackshape got started with €25,000 in regional funds before attracting more substantial financing from local technology holding company Angelo Investments. It now has commercial outposts throughout Europe, in Canada, South Africa and Australia.

Angelo Investments has also invested in Sitael, headquartered in Mola di Bari, the Italian leader in the development of nano and microsatellites. Sitael has worked for the Italian Space Agency but also has international growth ambitions. In September, for example, the company inked a deal with Australian firm Inovor Technologies for the development of a new small satellites product line.

Family-owned aircraft interior group Giannuzzi, founded over a half century ago, has its Italian headquarters in Cavallino in the Apulian province of Lecce while its US division Giannuzzi Aerospace is located near Philadelphia. At last year’s Paris Air Show it agreed to team up with Portuguese aircraft maintenance firm Aeromec to offer customers a complete offering for the revamp of planes and helicopters, opening up new markets on the Iberian peninsula and in Africa. Giannuzzi’s research centre is accredited by Italian civil aviation authority ENAC and works together with the University of Lecce.

Firms operating in Apulia’s aerospace district can count on strong investments in both research & development and in human capital. At about the same time the Apulian Aerospace District was being set up, the University of Salento established a degree programme in aerospatial engineering, which was followed a few years after that by the inauguration in Brindisi of one of Italy’s first technical institutes for sustainable mobility and aerospace.