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5th Dec 2022

EU looks to 'hybrid drones' for legal shortcut on migration

  • The DA42 Guardian can be used as an UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or OPV (Optionally Piloted Vehicle) (Photo: Diamond Airborne Sensing)

Hybrid aerial surveillance drones are being considered by the EU border agency, Frontex, for future operations with member states.

The kit, so-called optionally piloted aircrafts (OPA), can carry a pilot but can also be operated by remote control.

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They are useful because they circumvent EU laws which prohibit fully unmanned drones from flying in commercial airspace.

Flying unmanned craft next to normal passenger or cargo planes over the EU would require amending numerous national and EU-level laws and safety hurdles - a process that is likely to take years.

But putting someone on board as an additional safety feature gets around the problem, even if the real pilot is operating the craft from a ground station.

The Warsaw-based Frontex is looking at OPAs as a long term option.

"If you are going to invest in this kind of equipment, you need to use it for the next 10 to 15 years,” Frontex head of research Edgar Beugels told this website.

He said member states which purchase OPAs could add them to the surveillance arsenal in Frontex-co-ordinated operations.

The agency already operates five joint operations in the Mediterranean Sea in a broad effort, it says, to intercept migrants trying to reach Europe and from losing their lives in incidents such as the recent Lampedusa disaster.

The technology is well established and OPAs have already flown test flights.

The Austrian-based firm, Diamond Airborne Sensing, manufactures the Diamond Airborne Sensing DA-42.

The twin-engine craft, also known as the Guardian, can be used as a drone or as an OPA and is capable of flying up to 12.5 hours without refuelling.

“The investment in this remote sensing platform pays for itself through fuel savings alone,” the company's website says.

The DA-42 was slated for a demonstration over the summer as part of Frontex’ Aerial Border Surveillance Trial 2013.

The demo never took place because Greece declined to give Diamond Airborne Sensing a flight licensing agreement.

Frontex does not rule out organising future OPA test runs. Last year, it organised an OPA and drones workshop with Bulgaria’s border police.

But for its part, Diamond Airborne Sensing is also targeting individual member states with migration problems.

It flew the DA-42 in separate operational tests over the Mediterranean Sea in April.

The April test included an Automatic Identification System (AIS), which can track up to 200 targets simultaneously and which displays information on each vessel it spots on an operator’s screen. On-board cameras can also send live HD video streams to a command centre up to 200 km away.

Meanwhile, Austria is not alone in trying to cash in on the drone boom - a 2012 European Commission staff working document notes that some 400 drones systems are being developed in 19 member states.

Industry advocates say the technology is not limited to monitoring migrants.

A contact at a major French defence industry firm said they have a variety of potential applications.

“The idea is to develop cheaper means for day-to-day business in terms of monitoring fishing activities, in terms of monitoring illegal activities, more or less on a permanent basis,” the source said.

EU funded surveillance project spots migrant boat

One EU-funded research project on maritime surveillance recently demonstrated positive results.

The project, called Perseus, is led by Indra Sistemas, a Madrid-based information technology and defence company.

It received over €27 million in EU funds. The Perseus' consortium of major defence contractors, interior ministries, and national border authorities contributed another €16 million to "monitor illegal migration and combat related crime and goods smuggling.”

The research is geared towards spotting small boats by using a combination of maritime patrol aircrafts, unmanned air vehicles, maritime patrol boats, and mobile sensor stations.

A live Perseus demonstration in late September, by chance, tracked down a boat 60 nautical miles from the Spanish coast.

Participants were able to view live image feeds from inside the Spanish Guardia Civil’s control room facility as authorities intercepted the vessel.

Some 53 African immigrants, including 16 women and two infants are said to have been on board.

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