Unmanned surveillance for Fortress Europe

The agencies EMSA and Frontex have spent more than €300 million on drone services since 2016. The Mediterranean in particular is becoming a testing track for further projects.

According to the study „Eurodrones Inc.“ presented by Ben Hayes, Chris Jones and Eric Töpfer for Statewatch seven years ago, the European Commission had already spent over €315 million at that time to investigate the use of drones for border surveillance. These efforts focused on capabilities of member states and their national contact centres for EUROSUR. The border surveillance system, managed by Frontex in Warsaw, became operational in 2014 – initially only in some EU Member States.

The Statewatch study also documented in detail the investments made by the Defence Agency (EDA) in European drone research up to 2014. More than €190 million in funding for drones on land, at sea and in the air has flowed since the EU military agency was founded. 39 projects researched technologies or standards to make the unmanned systems usable for civilian and military purposes.

Military research on drone technologies should also benefit border police applications. This was already laid down in the conclusions of the “ First European High Level Conference on Unmanned Aerial Systems“, to which the Commission and the EDA invited military and aviation security authorities, the defence industry and other „representatives of the European aviation community“ to Brussels in 2010. According to this, once „the existing barriers to growth are removed, the civil market could be potentially much larger than the military market“.

Merging „maritime surveillance“ initiatives

Because unmanned flights over land have to be set up with cumbersome authorisation procedures, Europe’s unregulated seas have become a popular testing ground for both civilian and military drone projects. It is therefore not surprising that in 2014, in the action plan of its „Maritime Security Strategy“, the Commission also called for a „cross-sectoral approach“ by civilian and military authorities to bring together the various „maritime surveillance initiatives“ and support them with unmanned systems.

In addition to the military EDA, this primarily meant those EU agencies that take on tasks to monitor seas and coastlines: The Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) in Lisbon, founded in 2002, the Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in Warsaw since 2004, and the Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) in Vigo, Spain, which followed a year later.

Since 2009, the three agencies have been cooperating within the framework of bi- and trilateral agreements in certain areas, this mainly concerned satellite surveillance. With „CleanSeaNet“, EMSA has had a monitoring system for detecting oil spills in European waters since 2007. From 2013, the data collected there was continuously transmitted to the Frontex Situation Centre. There, they flow into the EUROSUR border surveillance system, which is also based on satellites. Finally, EFCA also operates „Integrated Maritime Services“ (IMS) for vessel detection and tracking using satellites to monitor, control and enforce the common EU fisheries policy.

After the so-called „migration crisis“ in 2015, the Commission proposed the modification of the mandates of the three agencies in a „set of measures to manage the EU’s external borders and protect our Schengen area without internal borders“. They should cooperate more closely in the five areas of information exchange, surveillance and communication services, risk analysis, capacity building and exchange. To this end, the communication calls for the „jointly operating Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (drones) in the Mediterranean Sea“.

Starting in 2016, Frontex, EMSA and EFCA set out the closer cooperation in several cooperation agreements and initially carried out a research project on the use of satellites, drones and manned surveillance aircraft. EMSA covered the costs of €310,000, and the fixed-wing aircraft „AR 5 Evo“ from the Portuguese company Tekever and a „Scan Eagle“ from the Boeing offshoot Insitu were flown.

EMSA took the lead

Since then, EMSA has taken the lead regarding unmanned maritime surveillance services. The development of such a drone fleet was included in the proposal for a new EMSA regulation presented by the Commission at the end of 2015. Drones were to become a „complementary tool in the overall surveillance chain“. The Commission expected this to provide „early detection of migrant departures“, another purpose was to „support of law enforcement activities“.

EMSA initially received €67 million for the new leased drone services, with further money earmarked for the necessary expansion of satellite communications. In a call for tenders, medium-sized fixed-wing aircraft with a long range as well as vertical take-off aircraft were sought; as basic equipment, they were to carry optical and infrared cameras, an optical scanner and an AIS receiver. For pollution tracking or emission monitoring, manufacturers should fit additional sensors.

From 2018, EMSA awarded further contracts totalling €38 million for systems launching either on land or from ships. Also in 2018, the agency paid €2.86 million for quadrocopters that can be launched from ships. In the same year, EMSA signed a framework contract worth €59 million for flights with the long-range drone „Hermes 900“ from Israeli company Elbit Systems. In 2020, for €20 million, the agency was again 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.

In addition to the „Hermes 900“, the EMSA drone fleet includes three fixed-wing aircraft, the „AR5 Evo“ from Tekever (Portugal), the „Ouranos“ from ALTUS (Greece) and the „Ogassa“ from UAVision (Portugal). The larger helicopter drones are the „Skeldar V-200“ from UMS (Sweden) and the „Camcopter S-100“ from Schiebel GmbH (Austria), as well as the „Indago“ quadrocopter from Lockheed Martin (USA).

EMSA handles flights with different destinations for numerous EU member states, as well as for Iceland as the only Schengen state. Due to increasing demand, capacities are now being expanded. In a tender worth €20 million, „RPAS Services for Maritime Surveillance with Extended Coastal Range“ with vertically launched, larger drones are being sought. Another large contract for „RPAS Services for Multipurpose Maritime Surveillance“ is expected to cost €50 million. Finally, EMSA is looking for several dozen small drones under 25 kilograms for €7 million.

Airbus flies for Frontex

As early as 2009, the EU border agency hosted relevant workshops and seminars on the use of drones and invited manufacturers to give demonstrations. The events were intended to present marketable systems „for land and sea border surveillance“ to border police from member states. In its 2012 Work Programme, Frontex announced its intention to pursue „developments regarding identification and removing of the existing gaps in border surveillance with special focus on Unmanned Aircraft Systems“.

After a failed award in 2015, Frontex initially tendered a „Trial of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) for long endurance Maritime Aerial Surveillance“ in Crete and Sicily in 2018. The contract was awarded to Airbus (€4.75 million) for flights with a „Heron 1“ from Israel Aeronautics Industries (IAI) and Leonardo (€1.7 million) with its „Falco Evo“. The focus was not only on testing surveillance technology, but also on the use of drones within civilian airspace.

After the pilot projects, Frontex then started to procure its own drones of the high-flying MALE class. The tender was for a company that would carry out missions in all weather conditions and at day and night time off Malta, Italy or Greece for €50 million. The contract was again awarded to the defence company Airbus for flights with a „Heron 1“. The aircraft are to operate in a radius of up to 250 nautical miles, which means they could also reconnoitre off the coasts of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. They carry electro-optical cameras, thermal imaging cameras and so-called „daylight spotters“ to track moving targets. Other equipment includes mobile and satellite phone tracking systems.

The Frontex drones will apparently be stationed in Malta, with Airbus currently conducting the first test flights from the airport in the capital. However, it is still unclear when the missions will begin. Frontex also announces that it will launch two tenders per year for a total of up to 3.000 contracted hours to operate large drones.

Drone offensive for „pull backs“

So since 2016, EMSA and Frontex have spent more than €300 million on drone services. On top of that, the Commission has spent at least €38 million funding migration-related drone research such as UPAC S-100, SARA, ROBORDER, CAMELOT, COMPASS2020, FOLDOUT, BorderUAS. This does not include the numerous research projects in the Horizon2020 framework programme, which, like unmanned passenger transport, are not related to border surveillance. Similar research was also carried out during the same period on behalf of the Defence Agency, which spent well over €100 million on it.

The new unmanned capabilities significantly expand maritime surveillance in particular and enable a new concept of joint command and control structures between Frontex, EMSA and EFCA. Long-range drones, such as those used by EMSA with the „Hermes 900“ and Frontex with the „Heron 1“ in the Mediterranean, can stay in the air for a whole day, covering large sea areas.

It is expected that the missions will generate significantly more situational information about boats of refugees. The drone offensive will then ensure even more „pull backs“ in violation of international law, after the surveillance information is passed on to the coast guards in countries such as Libya as before, in order to intercept refugees as quickly as possible after they set sail from the coasts there.

Image: „AR 5“ manufactured by Tekever (EMSA).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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