Monday

24th Feb 2020

Investigation

Frontex chief looks beyond EU borders

  • Satellite image of Libya - Frontex wants to look beyond EU borders to spot migrants (Photo: nasa.org)

Frontex, the pan-European border agency based in Warsaw, is mandated to co-ordinate member state border police patrols on Europe's external frontiers.

But its executive director, Ilkka Laitinen, told EUobserver the agency is looking to expand its surveillance operations beyond the EU to develop a so-called "common pre-frontier intelligence picture [CPIP]."

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"This is where Frontex is due to arrange the delivery and the production of additional surveillance data from an area that is beyond the border, typically we are talking about international borders or some further areas," said Laitinen.

He noted that traditional surveillance methods rely on patrols and manned aircraft.

Much more cost-effective, he said, are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which could be deployed at sea to locate, for instance, migrants in distress.

"There are many legal questions to be solved. But technologically speaking, it [UAVs] seems to be a reliable and cost-effective means for surveillance," he explained.

Laitinen said the data gathered for the CPIPs could come from a variety of sources, including "traditional means ... or by some UAVs or satellite images and so on."

Part of Frontex' job is to help steer the research and development of surveillance technologies by working with industry consortiums in areas such as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS).

The RPAS sector is currently dominated by US and Israeli aeronautics industries.

The European Commission said in a recent working document that EU companies are lagging behind in a market that could generate billions in profits.

Around 400 RPAS are currently under development in 19 member states.

"Our experience with the co-operation with industry is very positive - they have a lot of good ideas and they brought many new innovations. They innovate to a certain extent. They have been able to make border guards think [about] things in a new way," Laitinen told this website.

Large firms in the EU aviation market, such as Dassault, Thales and BAE Systems, complain that member states' strict and fragmented laws on unmanned aircraft are hamper development.

They say that RPAS, which can serve dual military and civilian purposes, could generate €4.6 billion in profits annually.

One contact at Thales said some may attempt to circumvent restrictions by placing a person in the remotely operated vehicle.

"He would be there for safety purposes," he said.

Other companies, such as Swedish aviation firm Saab, which hosted a seminar on external borders in Brussels in November, is also involved in developing coastal and land border security equipment.

Its portfolio includes watchtowers, UAVs, early warning control systems and naval and ground-based radars.

The company showcased its Saab 340 maritime security aircraft, which comes equipped with a high-resolution TV-camera and electro-optical sensors capable of detecting debris or people at sea.

Among the speakers at the Saab event was Erik Berglund, who heads capacity building at Frontex.

He noted that the EU agency is launching a pilot project, along with the European Union Satellite Centre, to use satellite-based information on "areas that are a bit far away from European borders."

The CPIPs, he said, could include surveillance data collected as far away as Libya, Syria or Mali.

He also said Frontex might in future acquire its "own" resources.

"This does not mean we will start buying our own ships. This means more that we will buy services, for example, air-borne and maritime surveillance deployed to the Mediterranean to reinforce member states under pressure, like when we had this Arab spring," he noted.

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About Nikolaj Nielsen

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Danish-American journalist working for EUobserver in Brussels. He won a King Baudouin Foundation grant for investigative journalism in 2010.

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