First test in Malta: Frontex drones approaching

A reconnaissance drone is to track down boats carrying refugees in the central Mediterranean Sea in the future, the main contractor is the Airbus Group. The range of the deployed „Heron 1“ also enables flights off the coasts of North Africa.

Frontex is apparently stationing its new drones in Malta. As the Times of Malta reports, the EU border agency carried out a first test flight there on Friday. The newspaper illustrates the report with photos of a „Heron 1“ on the runway of the international airport in Malta.

Frontex had tendered a contract for the procurement of large drones in 2019. The legal framework was the Frontex Regulation, renewed in 2016, which allows the agency to acquire or lease its own technical equipment, following a decision by the executive director. The vehicles, vessels, aircraft or surveillance equipment can then be used for joint operations, pilot projects or rapid interventions for border security purposes, according to Article 38.

Technology for tracking phones

Frontex did not announce the award until six months after the end of the tender. The contractor is the German section of the defence company Airbus, which had already flown the „Heron 1“ for Frontex two years ago in a pilot project on Crete. Airbus also provides the drone to the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan and Mali. There, the „Heron 1“ is only controlled by Airbus technicians during take-offs and landings; for Frontex, the entire flight is their responsibility.

The „Heron 1“ is manufactured by the Israeli defence company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and can remain in the air for about 24 hours. According to the German Bundeswehr, the aircraft have an operational range of about 1,000 kilometres, with a typical altitude of about 6,000 metres.

The equipment includes electro-optical and infrared sensors and a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for daylight-independent surveillance. Usually, the drone also has a laser marker, which might illuminate boats of interest for Frontex, for example, to then be checked by a coast guard.

Frontex has not yet disclosed what other technology the drone will carry. In the tender, the agency demanded a payload of at least 230 kilograms. The equipment would also include systems for locating mobile and satellite phones. For sea rescue, the „Heron 1“ should also be able to receive distress transmitters, with which newer life jackets are equipped.

Aerial reconnaissance for the Libyan coast guard

Airbus is also to provide ground stations to receive the reconnaissance data, which will be transmitted in real time to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. The contract includes a Remote Information Portal to share the information with other coastguards.

In this way, the images can also be made available to authorities in North Africa. The „Heron 1“ drones are to operate in a radius of up to 250 nautical miles (about 500 kilometres) and could therefore also fly off the coasts of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

The drones complement the manned aerial reconnaissance service with which the border agency currently provides aerial reconnaissance for the Libyan coast guard within the framework of a „Frontex Aerial Surveillance Service“ (FASS).

The contract has a duration of two years and can be extended twice for one year. It is unclear whether only Airbus will carry out flights or whether the Israeli defence company Elbit with its „Hermes 900“ is also a beneficiary of the contract. According to the Times of Malta, the award is worth a total of €100 million. However, the tender only mentioned €50 million. It is true that Elbit is also mentioned as a possible contractor. However, the company did not confirm the award in a press release, nor did Frontex report this.

More tenders for large and small drones

The drone deal previously caused displeasure among a European competitor as well. The Italian defence company Leonardo had applied for a judicial annulment of the tender. The endurance of 20 hours required there ruled out the use of the „Falco Evo“, which Frontex had already tested in the Mediterranean for several months. Leonardo therefore called the requirement „unnecessary, disproportionate, excessive and non-functional for the purposes of the service“. However, the European Court of Justice rejected the application.

It is currently unclear when the Mediterranean drone missions will begin. Frontex also announces that it will launch two tenders per year for the operation of large drones for up to 3,000 contracted hours.

Currently, Frontex also wants to procure a total of 20 quadrocopters for 2 million €. The payload of the small devices is supposed to be around seven kilograms, and the places of operation are the external land and sea borders of the European Union. It has not yet been reported who won the tender. The award criteria fit systems such as those now offered by the Chinese company DJI for authorities with security tasks.

Image: „Heron 1“ tested by Frontex in 2019 (IAI).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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