EU drones for people in distress: Dropping life rafts for pullbacks?

For the first time, drones are flying on behalf of an EU agency with rescue equipment on board. On the high seas, the actually useful technology could encourage illegal refoulements to countries like Libya. Perhaps the new function will only be used for minor maritime emergencies in European waters.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) has awarded a new €30 million contract for drone services. It has gone to the Portuguese company Tekever, which is flying an „AR5“ for EMSA since 2016. Reconnaissance missions of this fixed-wing drone are carried out for coast guards of the Schengen member states, that have to submit a corresponding request to the agency for this purpose. According to the tender, the EMSA drones are also to monitor the Mediterranean Sea within the framework of missions of the border agency Frontex.

Tekever equips the „AR5“ with radars, day and night cameras as well as receivers for signals from ships or emergency systems. They can stay in the air for more than 12 hours. In Portugal, Spain, France and Italy, among others, the „AR5s“ have completed more than 1,200 flight hours in almost 250 missions, including surveillance and safety at sea, detecting pollution or combating illegal fishing.

Assistance for up to eight people

The new contract also provides for various deployment options. It is valid for up to four years and initially stipulates 2,300 flight hours on up to 420 days. An extension is possible. EMSA has not yet published which Schengen member states will request missions. For this year, the agency only names France as a customer for flights with the „AR5“.

In contrast to the previous drone services, the „AR5“ has a function for assistance in distress at sea for the first time. As part of patrols, it can drop life rafts for up to eight people. On-board computers use „artificial intelligence“ to calculate the optimal drop point, and the payload then falls out of a flap in the fuselage. Tekever had announced its intention to deliver the new equipment to Europe and Africa.

The Israeli „Hermes 900“ can carry up to four life rafts under its wings (Elbit, YouTube).

The Israeli defence company Elbit can also equip its „Hermes 900“ with up to four life rafts under the wings. Without them on board, the drone has already flown on EMSA missions in Iceland and Greece. Successful tests with the design for sea rescue were carried out with British authorities over waters in Wales. In the English Channel, where such a drone would be needed because of breakneck crossings by people seeking protection, the British coastguard uses an „AR5“ from its competitor Tekever, but also with no life rafts on board.

Range up to 500 kilometres

For the EMSA contracts, Tekever is joining forces in a consortium with CLS, a subsidiary of the French Space Agency. The company is responsible for the satellite control systems for the aircraft, which significantly increases their range.

Until now, EMSA drones have only flown over European waters, where the respective coast guards of the EU member states are responsible for maritime security. According to the tender documents, however, the „AR5“ should be able to fly to sea areas up to 500 kilometres away.

From a technical point of view, the EMSA could therefore also be deployed on the high seas in the Mediterranean. The EU border agency Frontex is also present there on a daily basis with aircraft and, since May of this year, with a drone. By far the most missions take place in the sea rescue zone, for which Libya has been responsible since 2018. Every time a boat with refugees is sighted, Frontex notifies the Libyan coast guard so that they can fetch the occupants back to North Africa. Human rights organisations criticise these so-called „pullbacks“, which even take place from the Maltese rescue zone, as contrary to international law.

„Deplorable attempt for image improvement“

Tekever’s life raft is at best suitable for small sea emergencies (Tekever).

„If Frontex has such sea rescue drones at its disposal, we must assume that the people will subsequently be led back to Libya by the so-called Libyan coast guard in violation of international law,“ suspects Doreen Johann of Sea-Watch. The non-governmental organisation calls instead for a state rescue programme for sea emergencies in the Mediterranean.

The life rafts dropped by the Tekever drones are also clearly too small. Most of the boats Sea-Watch encounters in the central Mediterranean are carrying 70 to 120 people. The drones with rescue equipment are therefore „a pitiful attempt to cultivate the image“ of the European Union.

The organisation Mare Liberum, which is active in the Aegean Sea to monitor sea emergencies and respect for human rights, also voices criticism. It has been proven that the Greek coast guard has packed thousands of refugees to life rafts and illegally driven them back to Turkey. Such brutal pushbacks could even increase with the EMSA drones.

Image: The Tekever life raft should not endanger people on impact, so an on-board computer calculates the optimal drop point (Tekever).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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