76 Million Euros: EU shops for drones to survey migration routes

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will, for the first time, fly Mediterranean migration routes. Consortiums led by the Portuguese company Tekever, the Portuguese Air Force and the Italian Leonardo, won the largest European public drone tender.

Several drone fleets are gearing up to carry border control and maritime surveillance and secure some of EU’s sea frontiers.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) spent €76 million shopping for UAVs via two public tenders in 2016.

This led to a significant surge in the budget of the Lisbon-based agency that also services Frontex, EU’s Coast and Border Guard authority.

But the move also embodies the European Commission’s new policy adopted in reaction to pressure from migrants arriving at EU’s southern border, notably in Greece and Italy.

The last tender opened by EMSA was the largest of its kind ever made by European authorities: €67,1 million.

Most of the sector’s giants were attracted – Airbus, Safran, Lufthansa among others. But the biggest winning tickets were eventually drawn by drones made in Portugal.

Contracts signed last week featured winning company Tekever, headquartered in Lisbon’s Parque das Nações. It ranked first in lot II, a category which pitched unmanned 150 kg heavy aircrafts that could fly up to 10 hours autonomously.

Lot 1, designed for even larger airplanes, was unsuccessful and released its allocated funds for other categories.

Portuguese Air Force came second to Tekever and will provide services in UAV missions when Tekever cannot cope on its own.

Rotary-winged drones, the object of the tender’s third lot, went to Italian Leonardo.

These results are almost identical to those which came through EU’s December tender. Tekever and the Portuguese Air Force won big the first time, too.

EMSA decided not buy the drones it used, but to rent their availability. 

“This is a constantly evolving technology that quickly becomes obsolete, so it does not make sense to buy the equipment,” explained Leendert Bal, the agency’s Dutch director of operations.

But how does it work?

From now on, any EU member state can ask Frontex for a fleet of drones to carry out coastal surveillance functions.

Frontex receives the order, contacts EMSA and activates any of these three suppliers’ services. These services then deploy to, say, Lampedusa island – one of the most sought after European entry points by small vessels carrying migrants. Any service can remain operational for up to two months.

“We are an information provider for Frontex,” explains Leendert Bal. Each aircraft is equipped to detect the smallest movements at sea, regardless of the visibility conditions (camera gimbal, satcom, radar). This information is transmitted to EMSA’s command center at Cais do Sodré in Lisbon, which then makes it available in real time to Frontex in Warsaw, Poland.

“The sea is huge and it is always a challenge to realize what’s going on,” explains EMSA director. “We need all the information we can have, whether [acquired] by ships, airplanes, drones or satellites … I see it all as a toolbox. It is good that we have a clear picture of what we are looking for, in this case migrants.”

Drones have another advantage, Bal says. They can stay on top of the “target” for much longer than a satellite, which tracks Earth’s movements, and cannot focus on a continuous point for as long as it takes.

A version of this article was also published in Portuguese Publico.