EU external borders: Frontex ends test with unmanned airship

The EU border agency Frontex is responsible for the security of the external borders. Its tasks also include testing new surveillance technologies. The Portuguese National Guard, among others, provides support.

The Greek coast guard has completed the test of an airship to monitor its maritime borders off the island of Samos. An aerostat attached to a 1,000 metre long cable was used and provided by the EU border agency Frontex. The pilot project was part of the Frontex operation „Poseidon“ in the eastern Mediterranean, which started more than ten years ago and lasted one month. The German Federal Police has also been present in „Poseidon“ since 2016 with two ships off the Turkish coast.

The 35-meter-long zeppelin comes from the French manufacturer A-NSE. The company specializes in civil and military aerial observation. According to the Greek Marine Ministry, the equipment included a radar, a thermal imaging camera and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) for the tracking of larger ships. The company A-NSE specifies 40 days as the maximum operating time of the airship. It is expected to withstand wind speeds of up to 110 km/h. The payload is up to 200 kilograms, according to the manufacturer also equipment for „electronic warfare“ can be transported.

Mobile situation centre

Mobile sensor station of the Portuguese National Guard (all rights reserved Greek Coast Guard).

In the Frontex project, the Aerostat has monitored irregular border crossings across the Mycale road, which is only two kilometres wide at its narrowest point. The recorded videos were received and evaluated by a situation centre of the Portuguese National Guard. If a boat or ship was still in Turkish territorial waters, the Greek coast guard should inform the responsible Turkish sea emergency control centre.

At present, mainly people from Syria and Afghanistan are fleeing Turkey to the European Union. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 4,500 asylum seekers from Turkey came to Samos this year. A total of 26,000 people made their way to Greece across the sea borders. Last year at least 174 people died during the crossing, in 2015 there were even almost 800.

„Hotspots“ still overcrowded

On Samos and the other Aegean islands such as Chios, Leros, Kos and Lesbos, Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office are hosting refugees in so-called „hotspots“. These camps have been overcrowded for years. In the past few days, more than 1,000 refugees have arrived on Lesbos alone. This is probably due to the deportations of many people from Afghanistan and Syria threatened by the Turkish government.

The new conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a tough migration policy when he took office in July. The procedure of asylum applications is to be accelerated and more asylum seekers are to be returned to Turkey. Under the EU-Turkey agreement, however, this would only be possible for Syrian nationals.

High personnel costs

Personnel to control the airship and evaluate the real-time data (all rights reserved Greek Coast Guard).

The pilot project in the Aegean Sea was the first use of an airship by Frontex. The participants deployed comparatively large numbers of personnel for the short mission. Pictures taken by the Greek coastguard show more than 40 people. Ten months earlier, the border agency had begun tests on the use of long-range drones. An Israeli „Heron 1“ took off from Crete, an Italian „Falcon“ flew from Sicily this summer.

The pictures of the unmanned aircraft will probably also be streamed to the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. As part of the „FRONTEX Compatible Operational Image“ project, the agency is testing the improvement of real-time transmission for its operational resources. In a similar EU research project, the European Commission uses a mobile situation centre of the German company Elettronica.

Image: The so-called Aerostat, with which the Greek coast guard and Frontex observed the sea area off the island of Samos (all rights reserved Greek Coast Guard).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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