New unmanned capabilities: When will the EU use drones for practical sea rescue?

Two leading drone manufacturers report readiness to equip their aircraft with life rafts. These can be dropped with pinpoint accuracy over a maritime emergency. But perhaps this would also encourage violations of the Geneva Refugee Convention.

The Portuguese company Tekever can now equip its drone „AR5“ with life rafts for eight people. The new capability has already been tested in several trials over the Atlantic, the manufacturer now shows this in a video.

With the help of on-board computers, the system calculates the optimal drop point. The rescue device is to be placed at a sufficient distance from the emergency at sea so that those affected are not put at additional risk.

Flights in the Mediterranean and the English Channel

According to the company, the new equipment will be delivered to Europe and Africa in the future. Which countries are adressed, however, remains unclear.

Tens of thousands of people have already drowned on the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe. In the English Channel, too, people repeatedly die on unseaworthy boats. In both sea areas, sea rescue drones could thus save lives.

Tekever flies the „AR5“ for Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, on behalf of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), which also covers the costs for these surveillance only missions. For unmanned migration defence in the English Channel, the British Home Office has been one of Tekever’s customers since 2019. According to the manufacturer, the surveillance footage is also being transmitted to the French coast guard.

Life rafts instead of missiles

In the case of the „AR5“, the drop is made via a flap in the fuselage (Tekever, Vimeo).

Last year, the Israeli defence company Elbit had demonstrated flights of its „Hermes 900“ with life rafts over the Sea of Galilee. While the „AR5“ transports the equipment in its fuselage and drops it with the flap open, the „Hermes 900“ has up to four life rafts hanging from the mounting points under the wings that are actually intended for missiles or sensors.

In 2020, the company worked with the coastguard in Wales to demonstrate the possible integration of this „maritime patrol configuration“ into British airspace. This version had already been delivered to an unnamed customer in South East Asia.

No sea rescue for Frontex

Soon, surveillance flights with Elbit drones for Frontex are to begin in the Mediterranean. Currently, the EU border agency flies there with a „Heron 1“ from Israel Aerospace Industries from Malta International Airport. The main contractor is the German offshoot of the defence company Airbus, which is also responsible for piloting and repairing the drones.

The „Hermes 900“ will replace the „Heron 1“ once the 1,200 flight hours or 180 operational days required in the tender have been completed. However, Frontex did not call for the drones to be equipped for sea rescue.

It is still unclear where the „Hermes 900“ will be stationed in the Frontex mission. This is possible in Malta, Italy or Greece. The main contractor for the flights, logistics and maintenance is the British UAS Tactical Systems Ltd. (U-Tacs), a joint venture between Elbit and the French defence company Thales.

Research for better sighting and tracking

The rescue drone in SARA is permanently connected to a ship (SARA).

In the project „Search And Rescue Aid and Surveillance using High EGNSS Accuracy“ (SARA), the EU Commission also had the use of drones tested in a concrete rescue operation. A quadrocopter was therefore connected to a ship via a stretchable cable. The mainly Italian participants in the SARA consortium are said to have been recruited for the research by the Italian Coast Guard. The Commission calls the project a response to the „migration crisis“ of 2015.

In addition, private sea rescuers are also experimenting with drones to improve the sighting of boats in distress. Members of the „SearchWing“ project at Augsburg University of Applied Sciences have developed a waterproof self-built drone that can be launched from a ship and landed in salt water. Tests have already been carried out in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, as well as in the Mediterranean together with the Sea-Eye association.

With a similar goal but considerably more resources, the German Federal Police is also researching the sea rescue drone „LARUS“ with the German Association for the Rescue of Castaways. However, it will only ascend when a distress call is received and then transmit situation information to rescue units. The position of the shipwrecked is indicated by a laser marker.

Pullbacks in violation of international law

Private sea rescuers also want to improve their capabilities with the help of drones (SearchWing, YouTube).

Even if EMSA or Frontex use drones for direct sea rescue in the future, the problem of a sealed-off Fortress Europe would not be fundamentally solved. Since 2017, Frontex has been building up a flight service of manned and unmanned aircraft and offering these flights to member states at the EU’s external borders. The border agency may thus have provided information which resulted in refoulements by the Croatian border police in violation of international law.

Frontex also takes on such a role in or aids to so-called pushbacks in the central Mediterranean. De facto, the EU is taking over aerial surveillance in the Libyan sea rescue zone, until the country has its own helicopters. Frontex transmits the coordinates of sea emergencies to the Libyan coast guard so that it can fetch the refugees back to North Africa.

Thus, although the border agency is not involved in pushbacks, but initiates so-called pullbacks to Libya. Frontex or the EU member states are not allowed to return the protection seekers discovered at sea to Libya, according to the Geneva Refugee Convention. If the Libyan coast guard is instructed to do so instead, this also violates international law, according to international lawyers – especially if the people concerned were already in European waters.

Image: The „Hermes 900“ can carry up to four liferafts on its wings (Elbit, YouTube).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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