The "eyes" of the European Union on the sea are swarms of drones

The eyes of the European Union on the sea are swarms of drones

"The eyes of the European Union on the sea". It is not the official slogan but if it became one, it would be able to tell in a few words what Emsa, an acronym of the European Maritime Safety Agency, does. On the other hand, more and more eyes have the authority called to monitor the 68 thousand kilometers of coastline of the Union. Because in addition to checking that no one pollutes or violates marine ecosystems, according to the mandate that the agency set up in 2002 after the shipwrecks of the Erika and Prestige oil tankers had sounded an alarm bell in Brussels, for some years now Emsa has also been called to collaborate in border surveillance.

Since 2016 the small and little-known agency, based in Lisbon, has been recruiting drone companies and satellite services to test them in the surveillance of European seas, in Portugal, Spain, France, Greece, Finland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, United Kingdom and Italy. Overall, Emsa has put almost 60 million euros on the table between 2017 and 2021 to ensure technology and means with which to plumb the maritime borders of Europe. The initiative caught the attention of Frontex, the agency that guards the borders of the European Union, which in turn has hired Emsa and its suppliers of drones for "border surveillance and law enforcement tasks". as stated in a letter of 2018.

The document is part of the 320 pages on the experimental surveillance missions with drones and the related competitions that obtained from Emsa in 2021, following a request access to the documents to learn about its investments in technologies for monitoring the seas. A powerful control strategy emerges, initially aimed at the environment but then extended to safety and fueled by millionaire contracts. The result is a large collection of data delivered to Frontex and local authorities.

The investigation:

Unanswered (or partial) questions Migrants in the spotlight again The Frontex-Emsa alliance The brand of drones? To hide The millionaire business of biometric surveillance at the borders of Europe The Eu-Lisa and Frontex agencies multiply their contracts to build large databases and customs control systems, entrusted to a small group of companies specialized in the sector Unanswered questions (or partial) However, obtaining detailed feedback on Emsa's activity, including procurement for drones, correspondence with the police forces of European countries and with Frontex, flight plans and presentations of the results of the operations, was not easy. A first question through the European civic access platform, filed on 25 August 2021, has never received an answer within the time limits set by the EU rules. The subsequent reminders, which are still in the evaluation phase, were not more fortunate. Only after several requests via email did Emsa take action, but nevertheless gave a series of justifications for not delivering some cards and, among those provided, with many documents obscured in parts considered sensitive by Emsa, for example those relating to the models of drones used. . Among these are, for example, the Camcopter S-100 of the Austrian Schiebel, also sold to the military junta of Myanmar (the company justified itself by saying that it did so with a regular license and before the imposition of an embargo by the European Union).

In some cases Emsa has sent almost entirely blacked-out documents to Virtually useless. Only through a work of analysis of the files and the comparison with the other authorities involved in the game, was able to reconstruct the role of Emsa in the surveillance of the European seas. With its control activity, the agency wants to prevent poaching and stop pollution by promptly intervening on accidents or abuses. But over time the idea of ​​exploiting it also for security reasons has consolidated in Europe.

Camcopter S-100, one of Schiebel's drones used by Emsa for maritime surveillance tests Schiebel Multimedia Migrants back in the spotlight Once the Covid-19 emergency is archived, migratory flows are back in the spotlight . In the first seven months of 2022 Frontex recorded an increase in arrivals considered irregular: + 44% (42,549 people) compared to the same period of 2021 towards Italy, + 133% (22,601) in the Aegean Sea quadrant and 203% in more towards Cyprus alone (14,936). And the specter of global famine promises further increases in the months to come. Europe's response is to block access. Frontex, which is now the most funded agency among the 31 in the Union, has displaced 2,200 people for border checks and between January and July helped send 7,161 people back home (+ 35% on 2021).

Within the plan of a “Fortress Europe”, Frontex is at the center of a network of alliances with other Community agencies. From Eu-Lisa, which presides over identification technology systems and is investing millions in biometric surveillance, to Emsa, which operates in the field.

At Emsa stated that its drone services "do not are provided with the purpose of controlling migrants ", although then, in some mission documents, it is explicitly written that the aircraft are used to identify, in the area of ​​interest," vessels suspected of being involved in the transport of irregular migrants and / or in other criminal activities on the border ”or“ people in distress on the high seas ”. In Romania, in 2021, among the 17 participants in training courses to work with Emsa, there were agents of the local border police. While in 2020 Schiebel shows its technology to the Finnish border police.

A Frontex chart on migrant arrivals between January and July 2022 Frontex The Frontex-Emsa alliance Between Frontex and Emsa the first contacts date back to four Years ago. When the first becomes aware of the contracts to monitor the sea with drones banned by the second, it inquires to understand if the interests of the two agencies can converge. And on January 10, 2019 he asks to experiment with a system of remotely piloted aircraft (Rpas, i.e. drones operated remotely by a pilot) to patrol the maritime borders of Greece. The first of a series of requests.

On February 15, Lisbon responds to Warsaw. "I can confirm that Emsa has given priority to your question," writes the agency official (the name has been obscured) to Frontex colleagues. Providing the drones for the test in Greece is Ceiia, a Portuguese company among Emsa's partners. The aircraft are of the type Male (medium-altitude long-endurance), for long-duration air missions at medium altitude, equipped with "sensors with extended capabilities". The goal is to get the drones off the ground in March and close the test in nine months. Frontex will have access to all mission data directly from its offices in Poland and in real time, together with the Greek coast guard, since Emsa will also invest in the enhancement of satellite communications from the drone to the command and control center.

And if Warsaw is satisfied with the performance of the first month of work, Emsa does not rule out asking for an economic "little help". "If Frontex is satisfied with the service provided during the first months and the rest of Emsa's budget is earmarked for other RPAS operations, Emsa could allocate its only Male platform to Frontex services until the end of the year but this could require a possible additional funding from Frontex compared to Emsa's available budget ”, writes the official. On the other hand, the border agency is the one that receives the most funding from the Commission: 769.7 million in 2022 (even if a part was then frozen by the European Parliament) against 82.7 from the maritime security office.

Frontex informs Emsa that it is satisfied with the “state of the art of aerial platforms for carrying out surveillance before borders”. At the same time, Warsaw wants to go ahead with the tests, because it believes it "is not yet ready to fully develop the capabilities of Emsa's Male drones". So in January 2020 Emsa writes to Ceiia to warn the supplier that Frontex has asked for "an extension of the use of Rpas in Greece for a new period of three months". The contract, therefore, is to be extended. With new payments. The value is one of those data that Emsa has taken care to obscure in the contracts provided to

The Hermes 900 drone of the Israeli Elbit Systems, used by Emsa for maritime surveillance Elbit The brand of drones? To hide With Ceiia, acronym for Centro de engenharia e desenvolvimento, which presents itself as one of the ten largest research and development centers in Portugal, the relationship begins in 2018. Emsa signs a four-year framework contract. The agency explains to Frontex that "at the moment it is completing its fleet of remotely piloted flight systems (RPAS)", in particular among the long-range and long-duration (Male) and vertical take-off (Vtol) ones to use them directly from patrol ships.

Emsa writes that the aircraft supplied by Ceiia are "among the most mature in the world in terms of accumulated flight hours and operational experience", due to the "incredible capabilities in terms of flight duration , load configuration ”, cameras and surveillance systems. Emsa has taken care to delete the model name in the documents provided to, but as emerges from a question by the Irish MEP Clare Daly, from the Left Group, these are two Hermes 900 from the Israeli Elbit Systems, paid 59 million euros. These drones have a range of 36 hours of flight time and can withstand loads of up to 350 kilos.

Founded in 1966 and listed on the Tel Aviv and New York stock exchanges, Elbit is a defense company that works with armies from around the world, from the United States to Brazil, from Canada to Sweden. In 2021, it won orders for $ 13.7 billion and generated revenues of $ 5.3 billion. And almost half of the business is owned by aerial weapons systems.

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