EU has spent over €300 million on surveillance with drones in four years

Unmanned systems have been flying regularly for the European Union’s agencies since 2017. Now, member states are also receiving funding for drones at their external borders. Soon, remote-controlled patrol boats could be deployed.

The EU Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) has published a new call for unmanned surveillance of European maritime areas. A company is being sought via the European tendering platform „Ted“ to carry out an initial 2,300 flight hours with larger drones for €20 million. They are to operate in a radius of at least 500 kilometres and remain in the air for more than ten hours. According to the plans, the drones will operate without a runway. This should make it possible to decide quickly and flexibly on their deployment to an operational area.

With the new order, the EU Commission has spent at least €308 million on the use of drones since 2017. That does not include research and development of drone services. A study presented in 2014 by the British non-governmental organisation Statewatch, for example, put this at around €500 million.

With over €200 million, EMSA, based in Lisbon, has paid the most for unmanned surveillance. Drones are flown in all maritime areas of the European Union and the European Free Trade Association. This also includes Iceland and Norway.

Schematic representation of maritime surveillance with drones (EMSA).

Operational purposes are missions that EMSA carries out in cooperation with border agency Frontex and the fisheries agency EFCA. This includes border surveillance, the detection of pollution at sea or the pursuit of illegal fishing.

The unmanned systems complement the maritime surveillance of the three agencies. The joint situational picture of Frontex, EMSA and EFCA also includes satellite images, information on ship movements and from surveillance with chartered aircraft, according to a joint agreement. At Frontex, the information can be processed in a new „threat map“.

Automatic counting of people on inflatable boats

The new contract also includes the construction of a communication network and at least two ground stations needed to control the drones and receive the reconnaissance data. EMSA is also awarding €1.83 million for real-time streaming of the footage to agency headquarters.

The drones should trigger automatic alerts when unusual vessel behaviour is detected. Among other things, the position, course, speed and distance of a ship from the coast are processed. Suspicious behaviour may include conspicuous proximity to other ships, a change of lane, a particular draught or transhipments on the high seas. A radar unit should also identify ships that are on a blacklist. Other requirements include the detection of flotsam or pollution.

With the optical and infrared-based cameras, it should also be possible to read a ship’s lower-case name from a distance of no more than ten kilometres. It should also be possible to count the number of people on a dinghy from a distance, day or night. A technology for recognising mobile phones is also desired, but not absolutely necessary.

Total loss on Crete

For the first time, EMSA had put drone services worth €67 million out to tender in 2016. Large, medium and small aircraft were sought in three lots. They were to be used in various countries for general maritime surveillance. From 2017, the Portuguese company Tekever then flew for the agency with its „AR5s“, which are now marketed worldwide.

An Israeli „Hermes 900“ drone takes off from an airfield in Iceland (Elbit).

In another tender, EMSA sought unmanned aerial vehicles for €10 million to measure sulphur oxides, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides in ships‘ exhaust plumes and to detect marine pollution. A year later, the agency spent €310,000 more, among other things to improve real-time streaming of monitoring data to agency situation centres.

Starting in 2018, EMSA began commissioning flights with a large „Hermes 900“ drone from the Israeli company Elbit Systems. For €59 million, the long-range drone carried out missions for the Greek and Icelandic coast guards. On Crete, the aircraft suffered a major accident during a take-off. Originally planned for two years, the mission was therefore terminated prematurely last year. It is unclear whether EMSA will use funds from the cancelled project for other drone flights.

Vertical take-offs on land or from ships

From 2018, EMSA awarded further contracts totalling €38 million for systems that launch either on land or from ships. Various helicopter drones and fixed-wing aircraft then flew for an average of three months each in Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Greece, Croatia and Italy. This was followed by requests for different purposes from Germany, France, Great Britain, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Portugal and Romania.

In the same year, EMSA also funded drone services with small quadrocopters that can be launched from ships for €2.86 million. The agency spent a further €3.4 million to set up a satellite-based communication network.

Last year, the contracts were supplemented again. For €20 million, EMSA was looking for unmanned vertical take-off aircraft that can be launched either on land or from ships and can stay in the air for up to four hours.

Frontex also awards new contracts

First flight of an Israeli long-range drone with Frontex emblem (Airbus).

After EMSA, the EU border agency has also expanded its drone services. First, Frontex had conducted two pilot projects in the Mediterranean in 2018. An Israeli „Heron 1“ flew from Crete, for which the defence company Airbus received €4.75 million as prime contractor. On Sicily, Frontex stationed a „Falco EVO“ from the Italian company Leonardo for €1.7 million. Last year, Frontex finally awarded Airbus with a long-term contract worth €50 million for operating a „Heron 1“ drone in the central Mediterranean.

Now Frontex is looking for companies to provide flight hours with 20 quadrocopters for €2 million. The payload of the small devices should be around seven kilograms. The tender fits systems such as those now offered by the Chinese company DJI for authorities with security tasks.

This year, the border agency is also extending its tests with an unmanned zeppelin attached to a 1,000-metre cable. A first pilot project for this aerostat cost €482,000, for the new edition Frontex is spending €3.01 million. The main contractor is again a German company in Kornwestheim.

Operations on the „Balkan Route“ and in the English Channel

In addition to its agencies, the EU Commission supports individual member states in the procurement of unmanned systems for border surveillance. The money is awarded through the Internal Security Fund (ISF). The Commission describes the value of these projects so far as €15.8 million in the ISF area „Borders and Visas“ and €7.5 million in the area „Police“. Funds went to Germany, Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Malta and Poland.

Police testing a drone in Austria (BMI/ Gerd Pachauer).

The funds support national projects such as in Italy, where the Ministry of the Interior monitors the central Mediterranean Sea with large drones. Small drones, on the other hand, are used on the so-called Balkan route. The „Border Violence Monitoring Network“ recently published a report according to which border troops in Croatia are increasingly using micro-drones to monitor the green border.

Police in Austria also says to now have more than 40 Chinese quadrocopters for border surveillance. It is unknown, however, whether these were purchased with EU funds.

Tests with unmanned patrol boat

In addition to day-to-day operations, the EU Commission funds multi-million dollar research programmes. In FOLDOUT, for example, participants are testing the interaction of small and large drones with platforms for observation from the stratosphere. The ROBORDER project is investigating how drones can operate together with unmanned systems on land, above and under water.

Unmanned surveillance architecture in an EU research project (COMPASS2020).

So far, no border authority of an EU member state has vessels that are controlled remotely. Only recently, the military in the UK tested such a drone boat. It could complement the manned and unmanned reconnaissance in the English Channel that the police and military carry out together. To process the various sources of information, the British authorities have set up a new command centre in Dover.

Until 30 April, the EU Commission is pursuing a similar goal with COMPASS2020. Here, defence companies and officials are developing a platform that brings together surveillance data from satellites, drones and aeroplanes. Further information comes from unmanned surface and underwater vehicles. The project is led by the Maritime Authority from Portugal, and despite Brexit, the British Border Police is participating. Airbus and Tekever, the two companies that have each won hundreds of millions of Euros for EU drone surveillance in recent years, are also on board.

The „AR5“ from Tekever being used in another EU research project (H2020Flair).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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