EU agency awaits requests for new maritime rescue drone

The Maritime Safety Agency EMSA has signed a four-year contract for new drone flights. But operational locations are still unclear because required flight permits and approvals are causing problems.

The European Union’s seas are increasingly becoming testing tracks for drone surveillance. The border agency Frontex has been monitoring the Libyan sea rescue zone for a year with an Israeli „Heron 1“; boats with refugees are reported to the coast guard in Libya for forced returns. Now Frontex wants to station such a long-range drone on Crete.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) also uses drones for maritime surveillance and was even significantly faster than Frontex in doing so. After a joint test six years ago, EMSA had been looking for companies to fly drones, and in the meantime the Lisbon-based agency has spent a three-digit million sum on them.

€30 million for 2,300 flight hours

The services are available to all Schengen member states; the responsible ministries only have to submit a request to EMSA. Missions lasting several months are then carried out to measure the emissions of ships, to detect oil spills, to fight illegal fishing or for general coast guard tasks. This also includes migration control.

EMSA’s most widely flown drone is the „AR5“ from the Portuguese company Tekever. The fixed-wing aircraft can stay in the air for more than 12 hours and is equipped with radars, day and night cameras as well as receivers for signals from ships or emergency systems. In Portugal, Spain, France and Italy, the drone has already completed hundreds of flight hours in nearly 250 missions under previous contracts.

Last year, EMSA signed a new €30 million contract with Tekever. It is valid for up to four years and stipulates 2,300 flight hours on up to 420 days, with an extension possible. For the EMSA commissions, Tekever works together with a subsidiary of the French Space Agency. The company is responsible for the satellite control of the drones, which significantly increases their range.

Life rafts for eight people

In contrast to previous applications, the „AR5“ has a sea rescue function for the first time. The drone can drop life rafts for up to eight people from its fuselage. To ensure that people in distress at sea are not endangered, an on-board computer calculates the optimal drop point. The first tests were apparently carried out in the Atlantic Ocean off Lisbon.

It is still unclear where the „AR5“ with sea rescue function will fly. „The process to find the appropriate location for operations, obtaining the necessary permits to fly and authorisations is long“, the agency wrote. For this reason, no service with the new capability has been started yet. However, requests from EU member states have already been received.

According to a FOIA request, in addition to Cyprus and the Netherlands, the coast guards in Italy and France have ordered drone services. The two countries plan to cooperate on law enforcement in their border region in the Mediterranean. After four months, the mission is to be transformed into a „permanent regional operation“.

Image: EMSA.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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