Large drones in Europe are only allowed to fly in restricted airspaces, and until now this has also applied to the military. Operations by the EU border agency Frontex are changing that. With maritime drones, a new dimension of militarisation follows.
The EU border agency stationed an Israeli long-range drone called “Heron 1” in Malta since more than two years. Another drone followed in Crete a year ago. The drones, which have a wingspan of over 16 metres, were developed for the military by Israeli manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). They are used by the Israeli Air Force for reconnaissance missions; however, they cannot be armed.
The German Air Force has also had a deal with IAI since 2010 for missions in Afghanistan and later also in Mali. The main contractor was initially the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, which then passed the business on to the defence division of Airbus. The German Armed Forces recently announced the end of the “Heron 1” era and plans to replace the small fleet with the weaponised successor model “Heron TP”.
IAI’s “Heron 1” is sold worldwide for military purposes, but sales are moderate. The contracts with Frontex open up a new market for the Israeli company. This makes it possible to use the “Heron 1” for border police and later also police purposes.
The Mediterranean Sea serves as a test track for Frontex drones, because in contrast to flights over land, there are fewer regulations for drone flights. The drones also do not have to fly in restricted airspace there, as is customary for the military throughout Europe. However, this is slowly changing: the “Heron 1” operated by Airbus for Frontex has received permission from the aviation authority to fly in general airspace controlled by air traffic controllers.
For IAI, this was a breakthrough, but disillusionment followed: at the end of August, the Frontex drone crashed into the sea off Crete. The exact reason is not yet known, but it is suspected that there was a malfunction in the satellite-controlled communication. The crash probably also has repercussions for the Greek air force, which now has “Heron 1” drones of its own.
The Frontex drones are part of an Aerial Surveillance Service that the border agency has been setting up since 2016. Initially, the service consisted only of chartered aircraft. At the same time, Frontex began tests to introduce large drones. However, it is unclear whether the drone flights are not too expensive. The framework contract with Airbus for the “Heron 1” in Malta provides for 1200 flight hours, to which an additional 1870 flight hours have since been added. Initially, €50 million was budgeted for this.
Frontex has also been testing small and medium-sized drones for a good ten years and invites manufacturers as well as border authorities from the member states to “Industry Days”. These events are intended to arouse police interest in drone operations and facilitate corresponding contracts.
In 2020, Frontex issued its first call for tenders for the procurement of 20 vertical take-off quadrocopters. These were to have a payload of around seven kilograms and be deployed at the external land and sea borders of the European Union. The contract worth two million euros was awarded to two Polish companies to procure quadrocopters from the Chinese manufacturer DJI.
In order to promote the use of small and medium-sized drones also for land-based border agencies, Frontex again organised an “Industry Day” on drones in Warsaw at the beginning of September. With this two-day event, the agency wanted to raise awareness among its staff about the current and evolving offer on the market. 16 manufacturers presented their drones and highlighted their potential use for border surveillance. This is according to documents published by Frontex on its website.
Some of the invited companies are already suppliers to the EU Maritime Security Agency (EMSA), which introduced drones for maritime surveillance before Frontex. However, the event brought a novelty: Frontex also invited manufacturers offering “drones in a box”. These are systems that are transported by vehicles and can be immediately deployed by stand-alone launch and landing units when needed. These systems are said to use “advanced artificial intelligence” in addition to “state-of-the-art sensors”.
Tactical drones that can observe an area on land for many hours were also presented. These drones are not only for border agencies, but also for police purposes. The medium-sized drones offer real-time situational awareness to law enforcement agencies, enabling a proactive response to potential threats, writes Frontex.
One of the invited manufacturers was German firm Quantum Systems, which has already supplied 400 of its drones to the military in Ukraine and also sells smaller numbers to the Bundeswehr. With three swivelling propellers, the fixed-wing aircraft offers the possibility of vertical take-off and therefore does not need a runway. Frontex was particularly interested in these capabilities at the “Industry Day”.
Finally, Frontex opened another, completely new chapter in Warsaw. For the first time, manufacturers of sea drones were also to be invited to the “Industry Day” four weeks ago. These are unmanned surface vessels (USV), which – especially in the Ukraine war – are also increasingly used by the military.
For Frontex, maritime drones could take on various tasks in the area of maritime border security, including “patrols, surveillance and reconnaissance”. These could be carried out “along waterways” in the European Union, it adds. Frontex is thus again advancing a militarisation of border surveillance, this time even in a new dimension.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: A Frontex drone during a test in Greece (Greek Coast Guard).