A drone flying on behalf of Frontext has blocked the runway of Malta’s international airport after a malfunction. In August, a similar model had crashed into the sea off Crete. The coastguard plans to salvage the wreckage.
A Frontex drone has paralysed Malta airport due to a defect. The incident occurred in the late morning of 12 October. Three flights arriving from the UK had to be diverted to Catania and another to Palermo as a result, according to media reports. The EU border agency has now provided details. According to the report, the “Heron 1” drone had returned to the airport due to an engine problem.
As a precautionary measure, air traffic controllers granted the unmanned aircraft a “landing priority”, a Frontex spokeswoman told netzpolitik.org. At the time, only one runway was available at the airport due to maintenance work. An inspection carried out after the emergency landing revealed that the propeller engine “was unfit for mission flight”. It was therefore replaced.
“Unfit for mission flight”
So far, the drone is not yet operational again. According to Frontex, technicians are still waiting for clearance for a test flight, as required after major repairs such as an engine change.
It is the second serious incident involving a Frontex drone in two months. On 24 August, a “Heron 1” crashed into the sea 70 nautical miles south-east of Crete. It reportedly lost satellite communication with the ground station for unknown reasons. According to reports, the Greek coast guard wants to locate and recover the debris.
Frontex has so far not given any information on the cause of the crash. Only after investigations together with air traffic control can a decision be made on who will have to pay for the total loss.
Airbus responsible for satellite communication
The Frontex drones with a wingspan of 17 metres are made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Frontex concluded the framework contract for the “Heron 1” worth more than 50 million euros with the defence division of Airbus. The German company, which is based in Bremen, has had pilots and sensor operators trained in Israel. It also takes care of the tactical coordination of the missions and repairs of the drone.
Airbus has placed containers near the airports’ tarmac to control the drones. Airbus is also responsible for satellite communications. This link may have failed in the recent crash off Crete.
The deployment of the “Heron 1” in Malta began in 2021 and was the first of its kind, after Frontex had previously tested a similarly sized competitor model on Crete. However, this “Hermes 900”, which was tested at the Tympaki military airport, suffered a total loss after a hard landing in early 2021. According to the EU Commission, the pilots had previously been shown “atypical readings”. Despite the accident, Frontex also stationed a “Heron 1” in Tympaki in 2022.
The “Heron 1s” are equipped with cameras, night-vision devices and radar equipment as part of Frontex’s mission. According to Airbus, technology for locating satellite phones is also to be on board. For the flights, Airbus and Frontex are working together with the air forces of the two countries. Through military registration, the drones are given a call sign for flight control.
Airbus streams all the videos recorded by the drones in real time to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. There, they are analysed in a “Frontex Situation Centre”. In addition to the drones, Frontex also charters aircraft to monitor the Mediterranean Sea. The manned and unmanned aircraft are part of a flight service that the agency set up after the so-called “migration crisis” and an amendment to the Frontex regulation from 2016.
According to its own data, this “Frontex Aerial Surveillance Service” has carried out a total of 1,422 missions with a total of 6,258 flight hours in 2022. As of the end of August, the private service providers have already completed 1,121 missions for Frontex this year, with 4,786 flight hours. Slightly less than half of these flight hours were performed with drones.
Image: Frontex drone at a pilot project in Crete (IAI).