EU: Frontex: "optionally-piloted" aircraft tests, but no drones... yet

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29.05.13 - Statewatch reported last month that the EU's border agency Frontex is looking to buy a piloted plane to use for surveillance of the Greek-Turkish border during the summer. It has now emerged that the agency is also looking to enhance its border surveillance capabilities through the use of an "optionally-piloted vehicle" - a plane that can be flown with or without a pilot on board.

In January, Frontex signed a €118,000 contract with the Austrian firm Scotty Group, and for two weeks during July the company and unknown subcontractors will provide an optionally-piloted aircraft and accompanying ground station as part of Frontex's "Aerial Border Surveillance Trial 2013", which will take place as part of Joint Operation Poseidon Land. Poseidon Land has been ongoing at the Greek-Turkish border since 2006, and the agency's 2013 work programme allocates €6 million to the land portion of the €13.2 million "Poseidon Programme". [1]

The advert for providers of optionally-piloted aircraft systems said that Frontex wants to "identify more cost-efficient and operationally effective solutions for aerial border surveillance that could be used in Frontex joint operations." [2] While the agency initially sought two different optionally-piloted aerial surveillance systems, Frontex spokesperson Ewa Moncure said that "after evaluation of the proposals submitted to Frontex only one provider matched the requirements stated in the tender dossier."

Moncure said that the system supplied by Scotty Group will only be flown with a pilot on board during July's test period, and that it will be "similar" to the one demonstrated by the company in 2011 when Frontex hosted two demonstration sessions for companies dealing in aerial surveillance systems. These took place in Aktio, Greece (where Scotty Group was present) and Istres, France, with the agency controversially paying companies thousands of euros to display their wares. [3]

Scotty Group was in Aktio as part of a consortium made up of Lockheed Martin, Diamond Aircraft Industries, Inmarsat, FLIR Government Systems, FAST Protect AG and Broadcast Microwave Services. Their contribution to the Aktio demonstration session - for which participating companies were paid unknown amounts between €10,000 and €198,000 - was an optionally-piloted Diamond Airborne Sensing DA-42 aircraft "equipped with a FLIR Electro Optical/InfraRed camera and a robust communications suite [which] collected high definition video and imagery over several flights." [4] The optionally-piloted version of the DA-42, which was developed by the US company Aurora Flight Sciences, can "fly for up to 24 hours when unmanned," according to a report in Aviation International News. [5]

The Israeli company Aeronautics, meanwhile, has developed an unmanned version of the DA-42, and with the exception of Scotty Group's contribution, the systems demonstrated at Frontex's sessions in Aktio and Istres were unmanned. The agency's work programme for 2013 states that alongside a trial of piloted and optionally-piloted aircraft, there will be a "demo of MALE [medium altitude long endurance] Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) in an operational environment and report" as part of the "Border Surveillance Development Programme".

This statement of intent and the hosting of drone demonstration sessions seems to sit at odds with what Frontex spokesperson Ewa Moncure told Statewatch: that at the minute "no decision has been taken on whether to acquire [drone] technology for testing." However, it may be that the agency does not need to acquire its own unmanned aircraft in the immediate-term: its involvement in the CLOSEYE project that will launch border surveillance drones above the western Mediterranean under the auspices of the Spanish authorities will provide "a non-binding link between the project experiments and the Frontex coordinated Joint Operations that take place in the areas of interest, namely Alboran Sea and Central Mediterranean." [6]

Furthermore, according to a presentation by Frontex research officer Zdravko Kolev in February 2012, there are two "critical hurdles" that must be dealt with before drones can be routinely used for border surveillance: cost-effectiveness and integration into normal airspace. [7] The second of these hurdles recently led to the cancellation by the German government of a €1 billion drone programme after the European Aviation Safety Agency said "it would only certify the drones to fly over unpopulated areas because of a lack of an anti-collision system." Overcoming this problem apparently requires "immense expenditure". [8]

Further reading
- Field testing: CLOSEYE project puts drones over the Mediterranean, Statewatch News Online, 10 May 2013
- Aerial surveillance at the Greek-Turkish border: Frontex wants to buy a plane, Statewatch News Online, 30 April 2013
- Statewatch Analysis: "Trust in Frontex”: The 2013 work programme by Marie Martin, March 2013
- Statewatch analysis: The rise of xenophobia and the migration crisis in Greece: The Council of Europe’s wake-up call: “Europe cannot afford to look away” by Marie Martin, March 2013
- Millions of euros targeting border controls and returns, Statewatch News Online, May 2012

[1] Frontex, Programme of Work 2013, December 2012
[2] PL-Warsaw: aerial border surveillance trial of manned aircraft with optionally piloted aircraft capability equipped with multi-intelligence sensors
[3] Apostolis Fotiadis and Claudia Ciobanu, Closing Europe's borders becomes big business, Inter Press Service, 9 January 2013
[4] Lockheed Martin demonstrates capabilities at FRONTEX, PCB007, 21 November 2011; Zdravko Kolev, "RPAS for European Border Surveillance", 5 June 2012
[5] Chris Pocock, Big sales success for Diamond DA42 surveillance version, AINonline, 26 September 2011
[6] Field testing: CLOSEYE project puts drones over the Mediterranean, Statewatch News Online, 10 May 2013
[7] Zdravko Kolev, "RPAS potential for European border surveillance" - Lane and maritime surveillance, border patrol, 9 February 2012
[8] Omar Hassan Abdulla, Germany cancels 'Euro Hawk' drone programme, ASDNews, 14 May 2013

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