Frontex’s drones in Malta and Greece are controlled by Airbus. The German defense company also provides their satellite communications. This is now said to have failed.
A drone flown by the EU border agency Frontex crashed into the sea 70 nautical miles southeast of Crete on Thursday. This is according to a unanimous report by Greek media. The Israeli-built “Heron 1” was reportedly on a surveillance mission when it lost satellite communication with the ground station for unknown reasons. Flight data tracking websites show that the drone crashed into the sea at a speed of 120 kilometers per hour in the incident.
The “Heron 1” with a wingspan of almost 17 meters has been stationed at the military airport in Tympaki in Crete since July 2022, where it has been flying missions in the Ionian Sea. An identical drone has been monitoring the central Mediterranean Sea from the international airport in Malta since 2021. For this purpose, the “Heron 1” is equipped with cameras, night vision devices as well as radar equipment. Reportedly, technology for locating satellite phones is also on board.
Frontex has concluded the framework contract for the flights, worth €50 million, with the armaments division of Airbus in Germany’s Bremen. The company has trained pilots and sensor operators at the manufacturer IAI in Israel and is responsible for the tactical coordination of the missions. Airbus has set up containers near the airports’ tarmacs to control the drones. In addition, Airbus is responsible for satellite communications and transmission of video data to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw.
The drones are certified by the air forces in Malta and Crete. In Greece, the “Heron 1” flies as part of Frontex’s maritime operation “Poseidon,” launched in 2008. Member states also contribute aircraft for this purpose; a helicopter from the German Federal Police has already been seconded to Greek islands for this purpose.
In Malta, the Frontex drone from Israel is only allowed to take off and land if the airspace at the airport is closed for it. The Greek aviation authority, on the other hand, has granted permission for the “Heron 1” to be used in general airspace and was thus on an equal footing with aircraft. The EU already had corresponding tests for such integration in communication with civil air traffic control tried out in Spain from 2012.
According to the reports, the Greek Coast Guard wants to locate and recover the crashed drone. Neither Frontex, Airbus or the air force have given any information on the cause of the crash. After the investigation together with air traffic control, it can be decided who will have to pay for the presumed total loss. It is not known whether there will be a flight ban for the “Heron 1” in Greece until then. This could then also affect the air force there, which itself uses two “Heron 1” from Israel.
Four years ago, Frontex of Crete had already deployed a “Hermes 900” for border surveillance. It is similar in size to the “Heron 1” and is manufactured by Elbit Systems from Israel. After an accident at Tympaki airport, the drone suffered total damage. According to the EU Commission, it was an induced “hard landing” after “unexpected readings” had previously been shown at “some internal sensors”. Subsequently, air traffic control issued a grounding order for the “Hermes 900.”
For 13 years, the German Air Force likewise flew missions in Afghanistan and Mali with the “Heron 1”; Airbus was also awarded this framework contract. At least four of these five drones in Afghanistan have crashed either on the tarmac or in flight. In one case on the runway, Airbus pilots are said to have been responsible. In the meantime, the Bundeswehr has taken its “Heron 1” out of service and is waiting for its weaponized successor, the “Heron TP,” which will again be operated by Airbus.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: The Frontex drones are flown by Airbus and are certified through the military (Greek Coast Guard).