Secret aerial surveillance: What does an hour’s flight with a Frontex drone cost?

With a new regulation, the EU border agency has set up its own aerial surveillance with aircraft. With the arrival of drones, migration control with the „Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance“ has become much more effective, but presumably also more expensive.

For more than a year, the EU border agency has stationed an Israeli Heron 1 long-range drone in Malta, and another drone now patrols the airspace around the Greek island of Crete. Frontex, however, does not want to disclose how much money a flight hour costs. Thus, it cannot be compared whether the drones are more expensive than manned aircraft on behalf of Frontex, as suspected.

With a new regulation, Frontex received permission in 2016 to purchase its own equipment. Immediately, the agency began leasing charter aircraft for aerial surveillance as part of a „Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance“ (MAS). This made Frontex independent of borrowing planes and helicopters, which previously had to be requested from EU Member States in the framework of Agency missions.

Manned and unmanned MAS flights

For its aerial surveillance activities, Frontex enters into framework agreements with charter companies, which provide the aircraft, the staff needed to operate and maintain them, and the technical infrastructure for transmitting the recorded data. Such agreements have been made for four different types of aircraft with EASP AIR BV (Netherlands) and DEA Aviation (UK). Frontex hires the drone flights from Malta and Crete from the German Airbus subsidiary in Bremen.

At first, Frontex flew aircraft on behalf of Italy over the central Mediterranean and in the Libyan sea rescue zone in search of refugees trying to reach European territory in boats. If Frontex discovers them, it also informs the authorities in Libya. The coast guard there then brings the people back to North Africa. This cooperation is known as ‚pullbacks‘, which human rights organisations classify as illegal under international law.

In 2018, Croatia asked the service for a land border for the first time. Subsequently, Frontex has expanded aerial surveillance to other regions. However, most MAS flights continue to take place over maritime areas.

Almost 17,000 ‚migrants‘ detected in 2020

For the first time, the agency gives figures on missions and flight hours. According to Frontex’s answer to a question by MEP Özlem Demirel, seven planes, one helicopter and one drone flew as part of the MAS service in 2020. A total of 1,030 „surveillance missions“ with a duration of 4,701 operating hours had been completed.

Frontex detected 406 „events“ and 16,804 „migrants“ in this way. In about half of the cases, the persons were in distress at sea. In 119 cases, Frontex said it had made notifications to the Libyan coastguard, about three times the number in 2019.

In 2021, deployments of Frontex’s MAS service fell to less than half, while the number of flight hours decreased by only about a quarter, to 3,554. However, despite fewer launches, there were significantly more sightings than in the previous year. According to the Frontex reply to MEP Demirel, a total of 461 incidents and 24,299 „migrants“ had been detected in 2021. Unlike in 2020, almost all of these were reported to have been maritime emergencies.

Significantly more flying hours with drones

The reason for the striking changes is likely to be the start of drone flights from Malta, while the operational hours of the aircraft became fewer. The Heron 1’s missions are also extremely effective compared to the aircraft. The drone stays in the air for up to 20 hours, significantly longer than the manned fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters that Frontex had also used in the Mediterranean.

However, it is unclear whether the drone flights are not disproportionately expensive. The framework contract with Airbus for flights with the Heron 1 is worth €50 million, and the 1,200 flight hours agreed in it have since been supplemented by an additional 1,870 flight hours. According to the calculations, a single flight hour would cost €16.286 at the present time. However, this does not include the additional costs for the extension of the contract.

Under the same framework agreement, Airbus will also complete an additional 1,200 flight hours from the airport Tympaki in Crete on 182 calendar days. The operations are to take place exclusively in the airspace of Greece and will not cross other Member States or third countries. Airbus has now completed all the required test flights and demonstrated the airworthiness of the system. The Greek Coast Guard and the Civil Aviation Authority have approved the flight plan. This week saw the first documented flight of Heron 1 in the Ionian Sea.

€200 million for Frontex aerial surveillance

Frontex refuses to give concrete figures on the cost of an hour’s flight. The information is „commercially sensitive data“ that cannot be disclosed. This is what a Frontex official wrote to MEP Demirel, who asked a third time about the expenses, this time informally by e-mail.

So it is not possible to compare whether the drone flights are disproportionately more expensive than the manned charters. In total, Frontex has already spent well over €200 million on its own aerial surveillance MAS service in various framework contracts.

The MAS flights will be expanded once again. For the current year 2022, in addition to Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belgium and Malta have also requested the service to monitor their borders. In the latter two countries, the missions have not yet begun. An Italian request submitted at the end of 2021, the start of which was delayed for unknown reasons, is also still being implemented.

Image: The launch of the drone mission in July in Greece (Greek government).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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

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