EU: Drones at the borders: technical study outlines possibilities for EU institutions and Member States

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Statewatch has obtained a detailed technical study produced by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) that provides "an analysis of the possible use of RPAS [remotely piloted aerial systems] for border surveillance/monitoring, communications and signal detection (especially mobile phone communication signals)." The report sets out "a series of [technical] criteria... that could be used for assisting the design/procurement of RPAS for border surveillance operations."

The study: European Commission Joint Research Centre: Identification of current limitations for the use of unmanned aerial systems for border surveillance: Part A: Analysis of possible use for surveillance/monitoring, communications, signal detection (pdf)

The study was written for the European Commisson Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs as part of a 2013 contract with the JRC that involves the production of three reports. The overall aim is to "provide an indication of 'if and where' unmanned aerial systems can contribute to meeting EUROSUR requirements." The technical study is the first of the three and is so far the only one obtained by Statewatch.

The study:

"deals with the first task requested by DG HOME, which is to analyse the possible use of RPAS for surveillance/monitoring, communications and signal detection. This request is linked to the broader possible use of RPAS for contribution to the EUROSUR system. RPAS could in particular support functions linked to the Common Application of Surveillance (CAST) tools and the building of National or European Situational Pictures (NSP/ESP). This includes surveillance/monitoring but also other types of sensing such as Signature Intelligence (SIGINT)."

The other two reports examine "legal, technical and operational obstacles" to the use of drones for border surveillance; and "based on comparison with existing RPAS roadmaps - if and when it is realistic to use unmanned aerial systems on a regular basis."

The technical study looks at various types of "missions" for drones in border surveillance, which are divided into four broad categories: detection, classification, identification, tracking. Ways to enhance drones' performance are examined - for example by only turning on certain sensors once the machine arrives at the area to be monitored, in order to save fuel; by using other surveillance methods to detect "targets of interest" before sending a drone to investigate in more detail; or by equipping drones with more sophisticated sensors and surveillance equipment that can detect and track "targets" from a greater distance.

It includes a number of annexes, one of which sets out a "test case" for surveillance drones based on information received from an unnamed EU Member State, assessed according to some of the criteria set out in the report. The scenario set out by the Member State was for: "Purchase of two short range Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) that will be used along with the mobile surveillance platforms to complement the complete coverage of the coastline." The UAVs would "be used for real time video surveillance" and be relatively basic: a range of "approximately 30KM" and not flying more than 300m above ground.

The report concludes that the Member State provided "insufficient information for assessment. Based on info provided the RPAS could be used at minimum for detection and classification of people/vehicles/vessels but given the range/size... additional/sophisticated sensors could be used enabling identification."

Another annex provides an overviw of different categories of drone, their capabilities and approximate costs.

EU institutions and agencies have long held an interest in drones for law enforcement and border surveillance purposes, as well as for commercial uses. The history and development of the EU's drone policy is examined in depth in the Statewatch/Transnational Institute report, 'Eurodrones, Inc.'

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