The millionaire business behind drone surveillance at sea

The millionaire business behind drone surveillance at sea

Over 21.5 million euros. Spending on drones and control technologies by the European Maritime Safety Agency (Emsa) takes off in 2021, in the wake of a steady increase in the immediately preceding years. Between 2017 and 2021, according to the analysis of the reports of the expenses carried out, estimated that Emsa spent about 60 million euros to hire drone companies, recruit crews to guide them, ensure the connectivity to maneuver them high. sea ​​and buy databases in which to store the information collected.

The Agency that since 2002 has been monitoring the coasts and seas of the Union has meanwhile become one of Frontex's most loyal allies, which is in charge of patrolling borders and that he found in the experiments of his Lusitanian colleagues a useful strategy to increase the number of eyes on borders. Over the years, the agency has also conducted test missions with drones in Spain, France, Greece, Finland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and Italy.

To give Emsa the task of monitoring the seas is the same act that founds the agency. In 2017, in a letter to Frontex, the body explained that it had signed new contracts to acquire drones, in addition to the four in 2016, which however "focused on monitoring marine pollution and ship emissions". The new entries are also used for border surveillance. A coast guard role that the Council of the European Union itself gave to Emsa and that Frontex in 2017 said it was interested in exploiting, so much so that the two agencies worked side by side for a year to design the calls for drones. Lisbon, as an official writes in a 2017 letter, wants to make sure that Warsaw's needs are met. “The specific features offered by contractors are known, as they have been carefully researched by Frontex staff,” he reads.

The investigation

The receipt gets longer The first contract Military drones Opportunities from satellites The European Union's "eyes" on the sea are swarms of drones The Maritime Safety Agency, Over the years, Emsa has developed numerous contracts for drone services to be used to monitor movements in European seas, and has become a trusted ally of Frontex. The first episode of the investigation based on official documents and Emsa contracts The receipt is getting longer At the time, the agency had six drones: four long-range aircraft and two remotely piloted helicopters. The objective of the tenders, such as those won by Ceiia, Schiebel, Nordic Unmanned and Uavision, all drone developers, is precisely to enlarge the flocks. In parallel, Emsa has enlisted companies that provide the connectivity necessary to drive the aircraft and collect data on the effectiveness of the mission, such as Cls, Bilbomatica or Ses Techcom.

Wired has analyzed the relationships between Emsa and its suppliers through a file request addressed to the agency to know the investment activity on drones and technologies for the surveillance of the seas. Emsa delivered 320 pages on surveillance activities with drones and related competitions (although not meeting all requests, failing to respond within the time limits set by EU rules and obscuring significant parts of the documents). Thanks to other public documents, such as the annual procurement reports, has been able to calculate the outlay supported by Emsa so far in over 60 million euros, based on specific contracts for drones and also considering the assignments to satellite service companies.

The bill is bound to rise. Those that Emsa signs are defined as framework contracts. In other words, multi-year agreements, which establish some general rules and negotiation margins to review the commitments within certain thresholds, without having to launch new tenders. And this is what Emsa does, when the change occurs for reasons "that the diligent assigning authority could not foresee" and if "the price increase does not exceed the initial value by 50%". In March 2021, a contract with Nordic Unmanned, a Norwegian drone company, was adjusted by 38.46%. In July, another agreement for operations in Spain and France is extended for twelve months. In August 2021, the US satellite internet company Viasat, the first victim of the cyber attacks unleashed by Russia on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, was granted a 4% increase on the 2018 satellite communications contract: from 3,384 million to 3,522 million. It does the same with other satellite connectivity providers, Telespazio, Marlink and Ses Techcom. The contract is extended to all for another year.

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Click here if you don't see the graph The first contract The first contract for a generalized surveillance operation at sea, in addition to environmental monitoring only, it was assigned in 2016 to the React consortium. The drones are put in by Tekever, a Portuguese developer who uses his Ar5s in two missions, presented as “the first European system for maritime surveillance based on drones”. The aircraft are of the medium altitude-medium range category: wingspan of 7.3 meters, 12 hours of autonomy and 100 kilometers per hour of maximum cruising speed.

Collecte Localization Satellites (Cls) takes care of connectivity. , a subsidiary of the French Space Agency, which closed 2020 with a turnover of 152 million. Cls is one of the most loyal and close suppliers of Emsa, which relies on its satellite services for various functions. It was with Tekever that the spinoff of the French space agency last August presented a drone capable of providing rescue at sea, throwing an inflatable boat for eight people. Drones, Cls explains in a statement, "strengthen awareness of the situation at sea, with additional sources of data, and make operations safer for coastal authorities in risky conditions". CLS reports above all cases of checks against illegal fishing in Chilean waters or to monitor an oil leak in Corsica from space.

In subsequent contracts, Emsa grants Portuguese companies. Among these is Uavision, a Ventosa company that enters into a contract with the Lusitanian Air Force and the South African telecommunications group Deimos for a 2016 surveillance tender, which launches its Wingo Ogassa model.

Uavision's Wingo Ogassa drone, used by Emsa Uavision Military drones The other local supplier is Ceiia, acronym for Centro de engenharia e desenvolvimento, which is one of the ten largest research and development centers in the Village. In 2020, the Commissioner for Transport, Adina Ioana Vălean, mentions Ceiia among the suppliers of the Maritime Safety Agency and recalls that its services "are based on the operation of a drone, the Hermes 900". It is one of the flagship models of Elbit, an Israeli defense group. The use of this company, Chris Jones, executive director of the British non-governmental organization Statewatch, explains to, "is particularly controversial", given that they are drones for military use, although the commissioner specified that Brussels "does not has information on the use of the Hermes 900 in military operations ”and that the contracts cover civilian surveillance missions, including the identification of illegal activities. Vălean explained that the authorities can mobilize Emsa's drones to "increase their vision of the situation at sea by implementing Coast Guard functions" and they end up with "the data collected by RPAS flights". According to the Commissioner, Ceiia employed the Hermes 900 in "tests to provide civilian surveillance services from Greece in an area of ​​the Eastern Mediterranean during an initial three-month period starting from October 2019".

Even Schiebel, the Austrian defense giant, came under the lens of the United Nations for the sale to Myanmar of one of its drones, the Camcopter s-100, which Emsa also used. The Lusitanian agency, as a spokesperson for Schiebel explains, after the first contract won "a second one, for the duration of three years", at the beginning of 2021, "with the option of extension". Schiebel, who did not answer all's questions, especially about data collection and use, stated that its drones "do not use facial recognition algorithms or other biometric surveillance systems".

In the Baltic, approximately 9.2 million contracts go into the pockets of Nordic Unmanned, a Norwegian aircraft company that closed with 105 million in revenues in 2021 and which counts Emsa among its most important customers. "Let our drones do the dirty, boring and dangerous work", states the Sandnes group, in the south-west of the country and listed on the Euronext Growth list from 2020, designed by the European stock exchange for hunting SMEs of capital. Nordic Unmanned, which has never answered's questions, also participates in the tenders in consortium with Ums Skeldar, a joint venture that develops drones, born in 2019 from an agreement between the Swedish defense group Saab and the Swiss Ums Aero group (specialized in autonomous aircraft). Ums Skeldar said he could not respond due to nondisclosure agreements. In both cases, drones are used to monitor emissions and pollution at sea. In May 2021, the contract with Nordic Unmanned is extended for another 12 months, asking for additional services for cameras "suitable for multiple video surveillance functions" in 2020.

A mission by Ums Skeldar for Emsa with Ums Skeldar drones Opportunities from satellites Some Italian companies are also recruited by Emsa. One is Leonardo, in 2018, for a mission interrupted in 2019. The other is E-Geos, a satellite observation service company 80% owned by Telespazio (in turn owned by Leonardo) and 20% by the Agency Italian Space Agency (ASI), which has been working with Emsa since 2007. The current contract, which lasted four years, will end in September. To Paola Nicolosi, environment manager in the defense and environmental application programs division of E-Geos, explains that the company has contracts with Emsa for 2 million euros "in the last three years of which 15% in services relating to maritime surveillance relating to the security component. E-Geos is currently responsible for monitoring the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea ”. In turn, explains Nicolosi, Emsa “delivers the service to the European Member States, currently more than 50. More than 6,000 end users. It is a high-performance, fully operational, always-on monitoring system that is mainly concentrated in Europe but also extends to other parts of the world ”, including the Black and Caspian Seas. But the company, recalls the manager, has provided "maritime surveillance services in Australia, Saudi Arabia, England, Africa, South America and Southeast Asia".

Nicolosi explains that "satellite data offers the great advantage of embracing oceans, seas and coasts in a single view, providing routine maritime surveillance over very large areas, with an extremely advantageous cost-benefit ratio ". E-Geos, which offers purely services for environmental monitoring, puts its satellites and the SeonSe platform (Smart eyes on the seas), operated by Matera, which integrates various data, such as the detection of ships and information on wind and waves, for multiple applications. Among these also those of safety. “The service - explains Nicolosi - focuses on the detection of boats from satellite images with higher resolution as regards safety at sea, from border control, to customs activities, to illegal fishing”. In Matera E-Geos employs 10 analysts for maritime surveillance services. The company says it does not archive data, which is provided to Emsa, which in turn forwards it to the national authorities and Frontex. "There is an agreement between agencies and Emsa", explains Nicolosi, which "supports Frontex in operations relating to irregular immigration and cross-border crime along the European maritime borders".

In 2020 Emsa launches a tender worth 35.5 million euros for data center services on which to place its drones. Objective: to avoid service interruptions and "ensure future support for future RPAS missions, which include preparation for the use of RPAS, flights and analysis of data collected in the missions". In particular, continuity of communication between the drone and the command and control center is needed to analyze the video streams and post-mission data analysis. All confidential information that the data center manager must store and keep safely. On 25 March, Emsa announced that it had awarded a new contract to have "access to a large base of satellites" to connect the drones of Emsa's suppliers with the maritime authorities that use them. The Luxembourg-based Ses Techcom won the contract.

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