Frontex monitors sea border with unmanned airship

In the new Frontex budget, more than two billion euros have been reserved for the procurement of the company’s own ships, aircraft and automobiles. After drones, the EU Commission is now testing other technologies for aerial border surveillance

The Greek coast guard is using an unmanned airship in the Aegean Sea. The so-called Aerostat is used to monitor the sea area off the island of Samos. The pilot project is carried out in cooperation with the EU border agency Frontex and is part of Operation „Poseidon“ in the eastern Mediterranean. The tests last one month and are intended to determine the suitability for the detection of irregular border crossings.

If Frontex detects boats that are not seaworthy while still sailing in Turkish territorial waters, the Agency may inform the responsible Turkish sea emergency centre in accordance with maritime law. Aerial images are also to be used to track smugglers.

Only operation with ships of the German Federal Police

Samos is separated from the Turkish mainland by the Strait of Mycale, which is about two kilometres wide at its narrowest point. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, about 3,200 asylum seekers from Turkey have arrived in Samos this year.

Last year at least 174 people died during the crossing, in 2015 it was even almost 800. Sea rescue is not one of Frontex’s objectives. Nevertheless, the agency also mentions the support of such measures as the purpose of the zeppelin. In the central Mediterranean Frontex is meaningless for sea rescue, in the mission „Poseidon“ however the units are ordered by the Greek coast guard also for emergencies.

German patrol boat off Samos (all rights reserved Bundespolizei).

The aerial surveillance images could also be used by German police officers. The Federal Police has been present off the Turkish coast since 2016 with the control and patrol boats „Uckermark“ and „Börde“ as well as two dozen crew officers. Their deployment also takes place within the framework of „Poseidon“. It is the only Frontex operation in which the German Federal Police participates with ships. At times the Federal Police had also stationed a seaworthy helicopter in Samos.

Tests with long-range drones

According to media reports, the zeppelin is 35 metres long and equipped with a radar and a thermal imaging camera. While fixed on the ground with a line, the airship is to fly at different altitudes for experimental trials. The maximum flight altitude is indicated as one kilometre. The aircraft is controlled from a mobile base station in Samos. The systems are to come from the Portuguese gendarmerie.

Israeli long-range drone „Heron 1“ with Frontex emblem (all rights reserved IAI).

The videos recorded by the Zeppelin will probably be streamed to the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. As part of the „Frontex Compatible Operational Image“ project, the agency is testing how to improve the real-time transmission of its operational resources. This applies not only to aircraft and drones but also to ships and vehicles on land. They will also be equipped with GPS transmitters to keep Frontex informed of their location at all times.

The introduction of new technologies is one of Frontex’s core tasks. Last year, the Agency tested two long-range drones in the Mediterranean. The Italian arms group Leonardo is stationing a „Falco“ drone in Sicily to monitor the central Mediterranean, while an Israeli „Heron 1“ flew from Crete in the Aegean Sea. Its contractor was Airbus, and the pilots also came from the European armaments group. The drones were in the air for several hundred hours, and the EU Commission paid six million euros for them.

New Frontex regulation

Fabrice Leggeri presenting new patrol cars (all rights reserved Frontex).

For the pilot projects, the Border Agency affixed its logo to its drones, but they were registered in Israel and Italy. With a new regulation, Frontex will for the first time be able to purchase its own equipment. Until 2027, the budget allocates around 2.2 billion euros for this purpose. Vehicles are registered it in Poland in accordance to a „seat agreement“ with the Polish government. Frontex recently bought off-road vehicles that the agency’s head presented like a car dealer.

For this year Frontex has announced a new „Surveillance of maritime Area of Interest (AoI) service“. In addition to unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite data will also be used. The service is designed to provide „the highest possible level of situational awareness in a given, predefined area“.

Frontex also receives images of Israeli Elbit surveillance drones flown by the EU Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). At the beginning of July, the manufacturer announced that the patrol flights would also be made available to individual governments in Europe. Iceland is now the first country to monitor its coasts with Elbit drones.

Image: Aerostat in Samos (all rights reserved Frontex).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.