After EU recommendation: Frontex drone allowed to fly in civilian airspace in Greece

Two Israeli arms companies are offering their long-range drones in Europe for border surveillance. In addition to the military in Switzerland, the Greek coast guard is also carrying out corresponding missions.

For more than a year, the EU border agency Frontex has stationed a large drone at Valletta Airport in Malta to monitor the central Mediterranean. The unmanned aerial vehicle of Heron 1 type with a wingspan of almost 17 metres comes from the manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries. In the summer, another such drone from Israel followed for flights from the island of Crete. The Greek coast guard uses it to observe the Ionian Sea, which stretches between the Peloponnese and Italy, as part of Frontex missions.

Until now, Frontex drones were only allowed to take off and land in reserved or restricted airspace. Now, the Greek Civil Aviation Authority has granted permission for the Heron 1 to operate in general Greek airspace. It is the first permit of its kind for an Israeli long-range drone in Europe. This brings to a positive end a test phase of around ten years for the drone industry: corresponding trials with a Heron 1 were already carried out in Spanish civil airspace in 2012.

Contract with Airbus in Bremen

The Heron 1 drones are equipped with electro-optical day and night vision devices as well as radar devices for maritime surveillance. This provides Frontex with a reconnaissance image in real time. These video images are then streamed without delay to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. From there, they are forwarded to the situation centres of the host states where the drones are stationed. Also Italy receives the information from Warsaw.

Frontex has concluded the framework contract for the operation of the Israeli-made Heron 1 with the German section of the armaments company Airbus in Bremen. Airbus not only procures and maintains the drone, technicians from the company also carry out the flights. It is controlled from a container near the tarmac of the two airports on Malta and Crete. From Valletta and Tympaki, they then operate over the Mediterranean, where drone flights are subject to fewer restrictions than over populated areas.

There, the pilots also take responsibility for maritime emergencies detected on Frontex’s mission. Airbus then reports to the maritime control centres of the responsible Mediterranean countries. Coast guards in Libya and Tunisia are also informed in this way.

Israeli competitor to fly in Switzerland

With the licence now granted, IAI is ahead of its national competitor Elbit. Earlier this year, the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority had for the first time granted the company a permanent permit to fly a Hermes 900 drone in civil airspace there.

Elbit has not yet received such a permit in Europe. This could be due to the fact that a Hermes 900 made a total loss landing on Crete two years ago on a Frontex mission. However, Hermes 900s delivered to the Swiss military are soon to fly in civilian airspace there as well.

Elbit also advertises the drone for border security and „anti-terrorist operations“ or securing major events. For coast guards, the manufacturer offers the drones with a life raft to be dropped over a maritime emergency. Although Elbit has already tested this in the UK, corresponding missions have not yet become known.

Schiebel drone crashes into the sea

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) also participated in the approval procedure of the Greek authorities for the Heron 1 with a positive opinion. However, the EU does not have regulatory powers here, as this is a heavyweight drone weighing well over 150 kilograms. Above that, this legislation lies solely with the individual member states.

Below the 150 kilogram limit, EASA has standardised certificates for operation in civil airspace. Schiebel GmbH from Austria was the first to benefit from a corresponding EU drone regulation from 2020. The company received the EU’s first „Light UAS Operator Certificate“ (LUC) for daily use for flights of the approximately 110-kilogram Camcopter in civil airspace, without having to apply for the necessary permit from Austro Control on a daily basis.

Schiebel also hopes that the possible applications of his drone will „multiply“ with permission to fly in civil airspace. Schiebel has been flying for various coast guards in several European countries since 2017. The missions are carried out under the responsibility of the Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). At the beginning of May, a camcopter that had taken off from the German Armed Forces base in Staberhuk on the east coast of Fehmarn fell into the sea. The drone was supposed to measure the sulphur content of the exhaust plumes of large ships with special sensors. EMSA wants to keep secret why the aircraft crashed.

Image: A Heron 1 in action in Greece (IAI press release).


Autor: Matthias Monroy

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

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