After EU agencies jointly test maritime surveillance drones, Frontex moves on to aerostats

The use of drones and manned aircraft for maritime and border surveillance was a key focus of a recently-concluded pilot project involving Frontex, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA).

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The project's final report (see the summary, below) was published in December 2017 and states that "the Host Member States (Spain, Italy and Greece) appreciated the surveillance services delivered," and considers that "the best way forward for cooperation between Agencies might be a new framework contract for aerial surveillance."

The report highlights November 2017 as the target for Frontex launching "an inter-institutional tender" on aerial surveillance, which would either complement or replace the contract that the agency has had in place for aerial surveillance services since 2015.

No such notice has been published so far on the EU's official tendering site, TED - but the site does show that Frontex is seeking to further extend its surveillance capabilities.

In November the agency published a contract notice (pdf) under the heading 'Coastal surveillance aerostats — deployment and trial.' It is seeking "two sets of surveillance aerostats [tethered balloons], data transmission, payload control and the necessary expertise to deploy and manage them," for "a pilot project to test, compare, and evaluate different surveillance aerostat."

Aerostats are balloons that are filled with lighter-than-air to give them lift. They can be powered (for example, airships) or unpowered (balloons, which may or may not be tethered to the ground).

Frontex has long been interested in the technology. In 2014, the agency invited companies to demonstrate "tethered aerostats for sea and land border surveillance to border control experts from EU Member States." In 2011, it sought "expressions of interest" (pdf) from companies interested in participating in an event on 'Aerostats and Rapid Deployment Unattended Ground Sensor systems for Land Border Surveillance'.

The current contract notice foresees testing two aerostats - one equipped with cameras, and the other with cameras and radar. The offers received will be opened by the agency on 19 January.

In December another contract notice (pdf) - subsequentlly cancelled, to be re-launched "within the next few months" - announced the agency's intention to acquire "mobile surveillance systems for Frontex operational activities," with each system made up of:

"a 4-wheel-drive vehicle (a pickup for lot 1 and a minibus for lots 2 and 3) with a system of surveillance sensors — thermal camera, day camera and surveillance radar (surveillance radar is required only for lot 3) installed on board, as well as a communication system, including all the necessary devices and software to control the surveillance sensors and the entire system."

Summary of the final report on the pilot project: "creation of a European coastguard function"

When the European Commission announced in December 2015 that it planned to transform Frontex into the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, it also proposed changing the mandates of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) to align them to that of the revamped Frontex: "The three Agencies will be able to launch joint surveillance operations, for instance by jointly operating Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (drones) in the Mediterranean Sea."

Prior to agreement between the Council and Parliament on these new mandates and their subsequent entry into force, a pilot project on the "creation of a European coastguard function" was launched:

"The pilot project aimed at creating operational and technical synergies between different Coast Guard functions at EU level particularly between EMSA, EFCA, and Frontex. The project activities were clustered into four tasks:

Task 1: Sharing Information – coordinator EMSA
Task 2: Surveillance Services – coordinators EMSA (for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) and Frontex (for Fixed Wings Aircrafts)
Task 3: Capacity Building – coordinator EFCA
Task 4: Capacity Sharing (multipurpose operations) – coordinator Frontex and EFCA"

See: Final report on the pilot project: "creation of a European coastguard function"(December 2017, pdf)

Task 1 - Sharing information

The main objective of this task was: "Sharing of information available in ship reporting and other information systems hosted by or accessible to EMSA, EFCA and Frontex." Under a Frontex-EMSA 'Service Level Agreement', EMSA provides five different services to Frontex:

1 - Activity Detection Service
2 - Anomaly Detection Service
3 - Vessel Detection Service
4 - Vessel Monitoring & Tracking
5 - Vessel Reporting Service

The report says that the pilot project:

"provided additional and valuable operational experience that helped EMSA to improve further the services it renders to EFCA and Frontex through the existing Service Level Agreements.

The up-graded services were further tested in multipurpose operations under Task 4 and had a positive impact on the operational framework of Frontex and EFCA and of Member States within the context of the Pilot Project."

There were some outcomes that were specific to Frontex and the services it is provided with by the EMSA. For example:

"During January-May 2017, the Vessel Detection Service (VDS) delivered images on 111 days. The National Coordination Centres (NCC) organised the follow-up activities by surveillance assets in 30% of the cases (33 times). Additionally, National Coordination Centres forwarded VDS information to EUNAVFOR-MED: Operation Sophia for follow-up actions 45 times between January-May 2017."

Task 2 - Surveillance services

There were two activities under this heading:

"1. EMSA led a demonstration of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS, more-popularly known as drones)
2. Frontex tested its Aerial Surveillance based on fixed wing aircrafts (FWA)"

The drone demonstration, which sought to demonstrate five different types of "multipurpose mission" for the benefit of EMSA, EFCA and Frontex, took place in Spain in May 2017. Two companies/consortiums were involved:

"Tekever/CLS - a joint Portuguese and French consortium (termed REACT) and
Babcock - a Spanish company working with the American company Insitu (a Boeing company)."

The five "missions" examined were:

  • Maritime patrol and general surveillance
  • Marine pollution (monitoring and response report)
  • Vessel identification and tracking
  • Search and rescue
  • Monitoring of illegal fishing, drug trafficking and other illegal activities

According to the report:

"An “Open Day” was hosted on 11 May, which was attended by representatives of 10 EU Member States and from other organisations including the European Defence Agency, EU SatCen and MAOC-N. Attendees could observe the take-off and landing as well as the video from the RPA cameras in the conference centre."

The project report notes, amongst other things, that the drone tests showed:

  • data collected during RPAS missions can be used as forensic evidence required to prove illegal activities and could be used for prosecution;
  • some RPAS systems can fly undetected (acoustically or visually) based on the scenarios flown during the demo;
  • locking on targets to be able to track them needs to be improved.

Regarding fixed-wing, manned aircraft:

"Frontex has a Framework Contract for Aerial Surveillance (FASS) using fixed wing aircrafts provided by private companies in place since 2015. So far 15 surveillance services have been implemented under which more than 2500 hours of persistent surveillance were flown."

For the pilot project, three specific contracts were signed within the framework contract in 2016, for aerial surveillance in the European Patrols Network (EPN) Joint Operations (JO) Indalo (Western Mediterranean, August), Triton (Central Mediterranean, August/September) and Poseidon (Eastern Mediterranean, November/December).

A further specific contract was signed during 2017, involving "multipurpose flights, in Frontex EPN Poseidon," during which "an EFCA Liaison Officer was on board of the plane during some of the flights."

In 2017 Frontex also began supporting EFCA "in the pre-frontier area, in the Central Mediterranean Sea, through Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance (MAS) services." Amongst other things, this involved streaming full-motion video to "situational centres" in Warsaw, Vigo and Rome, "fostering a new generation of surveillance operations, where a real-time coordinated response is present."

Results of the pilot project's work with manned aeroplanes include:

  • In September, 15 boats were detected with over 600 migrants on board.
  • In October over 20 boats with approx. 600 people on board were detected and located. The detections were made in various locations in the Central Mediterranean.

It is not stated whether these "detections" led to search and rescue operations. The section concludes:

"The Host Member States (Spain, Italy and Greece) appreciated the surveillance services delivered and moreover Frontex and EFCA agreed that the best way forward for future cooperation between Agencies might be a new framework contract for aerial surveillance which Frontex will launch as an inter-institutional tender in accordance with the EU Financial Regulation, in November 2017."

As noted above, Frontex does not yet appear to have published a tender for a new contract on aerial surveillance by plane.

Task 3 - Capacity building

This task was coordinated by the EFCA and sought to:

"support national authorities carrying out coast guard functions at national, Union and international level by elaborating guidelines, recommendations and best practice with a view to enhancing the exchange of information and cooperation on coast guard functions."

This involved collating materials and texts on the cooperation that currently takes place between Frontex, EMSA and EFCA; and discussions on themes including "research and development" and "situational awareness" at a joint April 2016 workshop.

The principal outcome is "the outline of Guidelines on inter-EU Agencies cooperation," which:

"will provide comprehensive information on the legal basis for the interagency cooperation, its scope and framework, the areas and modalities for the cooperation with regard to operational cooperation, training, situational awareness and research and development."

Joint training events on satellite surveillance also took place.

Task 4 - Capacity sharing (multipurpose operations)

This task concerned "sharing of capacity, assets and other capabilities across sectors and borders in support of coast guard functions"; its main objectives were:

  • to test as many platforms, procedures and information protocols as possible in the framework of the project;
  • to gain operational experience in order to refine and enhance future activities;
  • to validate multipurpose operations concepts namely chain of command, tasking and reporting and cooperation on the scene of action (SOA)."

Aside from a host of different meetings between the agencies and other institutions (such as Commission Directorate-Generals and national bodies), the project meant that:

"At operational level, a Joint Maritime Interagency Team (JMIT) was set up to coordinate the multipurpose operations composed of liaison officers (LO) by Frontex, EFCA deployed physically or virtually, and participating national Coast Guard authorities at the operational Centres."

The multipurpose operations (MPOs) all took place "using existing operational platforms and structures including in the Eastern Mediterranean (JO Poseidon); Central Mediterranean (JO Triton); Western Mediterranean (JO Indalo) (see map below)," apart from "a common exploratory interagency multipurpose activity" in the Black Sea.

Information exchange was a key activity, "namely information on sightings with a fisheries utility collected in the operational area of EPN JOs, conversely sighting information with a cross-border crime utility and/or marine pollution utility collected in JDP operations." Between January and November 2016, EFCA officials also participated in five Frontex sea missions and eight air missions as part of the joint operations Triton, Indalo and Poseidon.

The report states that:

"Practical experience gained during the project shows that often incidents in EFCA’s field of interest (aerial and at sea sightings of fishing vessels) and in Frontex’s field of interest (illegal migration incidents) often occur in the same geographical areas. This demonstrates that as a result of common planning and coordination, means dedicated to border surveillance can support other Agencies (EFCA and EMSA) as well as MSs carrying out coast guard functions."

Further reading

€67 million for maritime surveillance drones (Statewatch News Online, October 2016)

Study proposes giving EU complete control over Schengen borders (Statewatch News Online, December 2014)

Border guards, planes, “thermal vision vans” and heartbeat detectors – who is equipping Frontex? (Statewatch Analysis, May 2014, pdf)

Frontex presses on with aerial surveillance projects (Statewatch News Online, August 2014)

Seeing through trees: Frontex commissions study on "solutions for under-foliage detection" (Statewatch News Online, February 2014

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