Italy and Frontex now monitor the Mediterranean Sea with large drones

Last week, the EU Border Agency decided on the multi-year deployment of large drones in the Mediterranean, now Italy is following suit. The contractors have already carried out tests for Frontex over the past two years.

The Italian Ministry of the Interior is providing €7.2 million for the operation of drones in the central Mediterranean. The police and the financial police, who is also responsible for border security, will use the unmanned aerial vehicles by day and night against irregular migration from countries such as Libya and Tunisia. The EU Commission is funding 50% of the procurement with money from the Internal Security Fund.

The contract was apparently awarded to the Italian arms company Leonardo. The firm is to provide up to 1,800 flight hours for an initial year. The drones will be stationed at the Sicilian airports of Trapani, Lampedusa or Ragusa. The Ministry of the Interior demands a deployment radius of about 550 kilometres. The contract has an initial term of one year and can be extended twice.

Real-time data to Eurosur

The drone’s Maximum Take-Off Weight is to be between 500 and 1,000 kilograms, their payload at least 100 kilograms and their flight altitude at least 1,800 metres. The parameters apply to the „Falco Evo“ drone, with which Leonardo has already gained extensive experience in the Mediterranean. From Lampedusa airport, the drone has performed several hundred flight hours for the EU border agency Frontex.

The „Falco“ can be controlled by satellite out of sight, but according to Leonardo, this requires relay stations to forward the signal for piloting and mission control. The contract also includes the installation of ground stations to receive the video stream, which will be fed in real time via the Italian National Contact Centre into the Eurosur surveillance network operated by Frontex.

On board are electro-optical and infrared sensors, a Leonardo-developed radar and a receiver for ship position data. If the drones detect a boat with refugees, it will be marked with a laser beacon. If the boat is in the Libyan or Tunisian SAR zone, the Italian control centre for sea rescue informs their coast guards to pull the people back to North Africa.

Operating radius of 500 kilometres

The „Heron 1“ in a Frontex mission. It is also flown by the Bundeswehr. All rights reserved Airbus

After several pilot projects, Frontex also decided last week on the long-term deployment of drones in the Mediterranean. According to the arms manufacturer Airbus in Bremen, a tendered contract worth 50 million euros will be awarded to the company, which will charter an Israeli „Heron 1“ from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Both companies had tested a „Heron 1“ on Crete for EU border surveillance in parallel with the Frontex tests with the „Falco“ in Sicily.

It is still unclear where the stationing of the now decided Frontex drones will take place, the tender refers to Greece, Italy or Malta. Frontex, like the Italian Ministry of the Interior, defines the operational radius as 500 kilometres, and the drone can remain in the air for more than 24 hours. Frontex also intends to transmit the information obtained during the missions to the Libyan coast guard.

According to „Tenders Electronic Daily“, the scoreboard for public procurement in Europe, the Israeli company Elbit has also been awarded a contract for a Frontex drone worth €50 million. This is likely to be the „Hermes 900“ model whose services Frontex had requested from the EU Maritime Safety Agency.

Flight in civil airspace

The „Heron 1“ has been flown by the military for more than ten years and has allegedly completed more than 450,000 flying hours. The Bundeswehr uses the drone for surveillance in Afghanistan and Mali, this contract is also being handled by Airbus as prime contractor. Airbus now sees the business with Frontex as an opportunity to expand its military drone services „also to civil stakeholders“. According to IAI, the contract will also „open the door to more civilian markets“.

For the military, the „Heron 1“ will operate in restricted military areas, for Frontex the drone will fly in civil airspace. It is unclear whether corridors will be closed for take-offs and landings there as before. Leonardo advertises that the „Falco Evo“ can also operate in non-segregated airspace. The drones would then be treated like aircraft by civil air traffic controllers.

Image: All rights reserved Leonardo.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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