EU extends maritime surveillance with drones

Three EU agencies are responsible for maritime safety, in an agreement they want to benefit from joint reconnaissance capabilities. Drone flights are used for border, fisheries and customs controls, law enforcement and environmental protection. Seven European states are currently participating and an enlargement is planned.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) has extended its drone flights to a total of six EU Member States and Iceland. According to EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, unmanned aerial vehicles of various sizes fly in Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Greece, Croatia, Italy.

The drone surveillance services are carried out for the coastguards of each country. They cover irregular immigration, smuggling, illegal fishing and air or sea pollution. If necessary, the drones can also be used for rescue at sea. EMSA works with the European Aviation Safety Agency to integrate the drones into civil airspace.

Drone service for three agencies

The flights are not only operated for the national authorities responsible for shipping. The border agency Frontex and the national border authorities that it coordinates also make use of EMSA’s surveillance data. This is based on a working agreement in which the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) also participates.

The three agencies together coordinate some 300 civil and military authorities responsible for maritime safety in the EU Member States. The aim of the agreement is to allow them to mutually benefit from each other’s monitoring activities. While Frontex and EFCA specialise in satellite reconnaissance, EMSA is since 2017 developing the drone service. Last year, the agencies assessed initial tests with various drones as successful.

Operating contract worth 59 million euros

The EU drones in Island carry the EMSA and Portuguese operator emblem (all rights reserved Elbit Systems).

First, the Icelandic government made use of EMSA’s offer. Since June of this year, a „Hermes 900“ from the Israeli company Elbit Systems has been operating from Egilsstaðir Airport. According to the manufacturer, the long-endurance drone flights cover more than half of Iceland’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The „Hermes 900“ carries a sea surveillance system specially designed for coastal and marine use. There is also a radar on board, an electro-optical sensor and a receiver for an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that detects signals from registered vessels. Areas of application can be marked with a so-called radio beacon.

EMSA did not conclude the contract for the flights in Iceland directly with Elbit Systems, but via the Portuguese company CeiiA. The newspaper „Times of Israel“ quotes the costs of the operating agreement as 59 million euros, the term is two years and can be extended by a further two years.

A vertical starter against environmental pollution

In addition to long-range drones, EMSA now also uses larger Schiebel helicopter drones from Austria. The „Camcopter S-100“ can be flown from ships or from take-off points ashore and has an operating time of more than six hours. The vertical take-off aircraft operates in Croatia and is equipped with optical and infrared cameras and an AIS receiver, the maximum range is around 100 kilometres.

EMSA uses vertical take-off aircraft in some Member States, in this case the „Camcopter S-100“ (all rights reserved EMSA).

EMSA has concluded a similar contract for the „Skeldar V-200“ helicopter drone with a Scandinavian consortium. The aircraft is equipped with a sensor for monitoring sulphur emissions and is intended to detect pollution caused by ships in the Baltic Sea. The drone also has optical and infrared cameras and the standard AIS receiver to monitor the sea areas.

Frontex drone tests

As the only so-called fixed-wing drone, EMSA flies on behalf of Spanish authorities a Portuguese device made by Tekever. The drone will not only be used to rescue at sea, but also to observe oil spills. Finally, EMSA also operates several quadrocopters. They are based on a model from the US company Lockheed Martin and are stationed on board ships. In the event of an oil spill, they document pollution and its removal. EMSA plans to use the small drones for surveillance at a later date.

The EU Commission is now preparing further drone flights. Interested EU member states should indicate whether they are interested in new EMSA missions in the period 2020-2021. In addition to the drone service of the Maritime Safety Agency, Frontex has also carried out various drone tests. The pilot projects were designed to assess the suitability of two long-endurance drones in the Mediterranean and have now been completed. Similar research for unmanned systems on land, at sea and in the air is being financed by the EU Commission in the ROBORDER project, with corresponding tests in several Member States.

Image: An Israeli drone of the type „Hermes 900“ takes off from an airfield in Iceland (all rights reserved Elbit Systems).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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