Frontex presses on with aerial surveillance projects

EU border agency Frontex has made progress in its attempts to acquire and deploy aerial surveillance technology, with the completion of a pilot project at the Bulgaria-Turkey border in early July. According to the agency, the project has outlined "new approaches in Frontex policy for future acquisition of operational assets and services."

Eye in the sky

The pilot project began on 26 May and ended on 4 July. During this time 35 flights of a manned surveillance aircraft took place, notching up a total flight time of 115 hours.

Frontex told Statewatch that the project had "two specific objectives":

  • To contract a complete service for aerial border surveillance; and
  • To assess the preparedness (the reaction time) of the potential contractor in order to establish future Frontex policy for contracting surveillance services. [1]

Further aims were to:

"[A]ssess the operational effectiveness and cost-efficiency of the surveillance service, as well as to identify possible challenges related to the specifics of the national regulations at the country of deployment and neighbouring third countries."

The "main conclusion" was that:

"[A]mong the economic operators exists enough capacity to provide aerial surveillance service for Frontex Joint Operations. This service is accessible, qualitative, effective and cost efficient, which stipulates new approaches in Frontex policy for future acquisition of operational assets and services."

The project also found that the "huge amount of data transfer over Internet" required "made the access to high speed, wide band Internet an important issue for the project implementation." This finding makes "the Internet providers important stakeholders in purchase of surveillance services."

The contract for the pilot project was worth €270,000 and was awarded to UK-based company Diamond Executive Aviation (DEA), which acknowledged it with a post on their website:

"The project calls for a sophisticated aerial surveillance program to be conducted using a high performance EO/IR [electro-optical/infra-red] camera together with high bandwidth real time video transmission to a remote command vehicle and onward transmission to users accessing this information by a secure Internet link." [2]

The decision to give DEA the contract was made by Frontex on 17 December last year, although the agency only published the formal notice on 29 March 2014. Originally an air taxi firm, DEA also undertakes "Flight Inspection, ISTAR training and aerial survey". [3] The pilot project for Frontex was carried out using a "G-DSPY, one of its fleet of 6 Diamond Aircraft DA42 MPP". [4]

Previous attempts

Frontex has previously attempted to test an optionally-piloted DA42 operated by Austrian company Scotty Group, but the Greek government refused to provide a flight licence. [5]

The agency also published a tender last year for aerial surveillance services that was later cancelled due to a lack of commercial interest. It sought:

"[A]erial border surveillance services - aircraft equipped with multi-intelligence sensors, radio communication means, ground station and personal equipment, in order to perform aerial surveillance at the external EU land border between Greece and Turkey." [6]

Public-private dialogue

Frontex is also currently organising another of its long-running border surveillance workshops, which will take place in Spain in October:

"Frontex, in cooperation with the Spanish Guardia Civil, is organising a workshop during which interested commercial companies will be given the opportunity to present the latest advances in tethered aerostats for sea and land border surveillance to border control experts from the EU Member States."

Aerostats are craft that use lighter-than-air gas for lift, for example balloons or airships. According to the agency's "invitation to industry":

"The main objective of this event is to facilitate a dialogue between industry, Member States and Frontex on current developments in maritime and land border surveillance, as well as on future developments in the area of the above-mentioned technologies…" [7]

Previous Frontex workshops have focused on drones, "integrated sensor systems" and ground surveillance systems. Defence and security companies have been paid significant sums in the past - nearly €200,000 in one case - for technology demonstrations. [8]

Research funding

Research and development into border surveillance technologies will also be funded through the EU's Horizon 2020 "secure societies" programme, which in 2015 will provide nearly €21 million for projects dealing with three "maritime border security" topics:

  • Radar systems for the surveillance of coastal and pre-frontier areas and in support of search and rescue operations;
  • Affordable and easily deployable technologies for EU coastal border surveillance with reduced impact on the environment; and
  • Light optionally piloted vehicles (and sensors) for maritime surveillance. [9]

This follows on from research that was funded through the Seventh Framework Programme. A host of projects aimed at heightening land and sea border surveillance through were funded, including:

  • SUNNY: Smart Unmanned aerial vehicle sensor Network for detection of border crossing and illegal entrY, which received €9,569,977 in EU funding
  • CLOSEYE: Collaborative evaluation Of border Surveillance technologies in maritime Environment bY pre-operational validation of innovative solutions, €9,218,256
  • SEABILLA: Sea Border Surveillance, €9,841,604
  • I2C: Integrated System for Interoperable sensors & Information sources for Common abnormal vessel behaviour detection & Collaborative identification of threat, €9,869,621
  • TALOS: Transportable Autonomous patrol for Land bOrder Surveillance, €12,898,332

Earlier this year Frontex also commissioned a study to examine "solutions for under-foliage detection and their potential impact on border surveillance" - that is, technology that can see through trees. [10]

"Displacement" and death

At the same time as attempting to enhance border surveillance, the agency admits that:

"[A]ttempts to evade detection or identification are all likely to occur in response to enhanced surveillance. On the Eastern Mediterranean route, enhanced surveillance along the Greek land border with Turkey has resulted in small displacement on neighbouring border sections." [11]

This "displacement" is, for some, deadly:

"The Greek authorities have treated many apprehended individuals brutally, assaulting them on arrest and forcing them back into Turkey. It is these operations that either directly or indirectly result in deaths. While some individuals have died during them, many others have succumbed while trying to evade detection, following dangerous routes in unseaworthy vessels." [12]

Frontex's deputy director, Gil Aria Fernandez, has admitted the limits of control measures in relation to saving lives: "Improving the situation to prevent casualties, to prevent people from sinking and drowning in the sea, will not be possible by border control, this is obvious." [13]

But the agency continues with its work, with the recent European Council meeting calling for reinforcements - their June conclusions said Frontex should "reinforce its activities in terms of operational assistance and increase its reactivity towards rapid evolutions in migration flows." Investigations into setting up a European System of Border Guards - "to enhance the control and surveillance capabilities at our external borders" - will also continue. [14]

Further reading


[1] Frontex, 'Pilot project on purchase of Aerial Surveillance Service for Frontex Joint Operations', 8 August 2014
[2] Diamond Executive Aviation, 'DEA awarded Frontex contract', March 2014
[3] Diamond Executive Aviation, 'ISTAR and Sensor Based Operations', undated
[4] Diamond Executive Aviation, 'DEA completes Frontex pilot project', July 2014
[5] 'Frontex cancels surveillance plane contract due to lack of interest from companies', Statewatch News Online, October 2013
[6] Ibid.
[7] Frontex, 'Invitation to industry - Aerial border surveillance trial, Spain 2014', undated
[8] Ben Hayes, Chris Jones and Eric Töpfer, 'Eurodrones, Inc.', Statewatch/Transnational Institute, February 2014, pp.69-72
[9] European Commission, 'Border security and external security', undated
[10] 'Seeing through trees: Frontex commissions study on "solutions for under-foliage detection"', Statewatch News Online, February 2014
[11] Frontex, 'Work Programme 2014'
[12] Özgün Topak, 'No limits to brutality: deaths at the Greece-Turkey borders', openDemocracy, 19 May 2014
[13] Nikolaj Nielsen, 'EU border surveillance system not helping to save lives', EUobserver, 14 May 2014
[14] European Council, 'Conclusions', 27 June 2014

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