The European Commission aims to spend £260 million on its ‘Eurosur’ project, which includes a plan for surveillance drones to patrol the Mediterranean coast. At the same time, several schemes are underway in Britain, aiming to develop civilian roles for aircraft based on the killer drones hunting al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If the high-tech measures against terrorists, illegal immigrants and smugglers in the Mediterranean are successful, there would be pressure on the UK to follow suit. Surveillance planes with military-grade cameras would be more effective at monitoring the coastline than satellites or standard planes. British defence firms are testing sophisticated “sense and avoid” systems on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the Irish Sea and some experts believe European civilian airspace could soon see drones flying alongside other aircraft.
British police are working on a £3 million project with partners in the UK, France and the Netherlands to explore the use of unmanned aircraft to patrol its coastline and the English Channel. A spokesman said the likely targets would include organised criminals, such as people-smugglers.
Eurosur, which is about to go before the European Parliament, involves small drones being deployed along the Mediterranean coastline, and is a response to the large numbers of illegal immigrants crossing from North Africa in small boats. The umbrella body for EC border agencies, Frontex, which came up with the idea, has hosted demonstrations by defence companies for member states to show them the range of drones available. One of the craft, the Spanish-built Fulmar, has a 10ft wingspan, cruises at 60mph and can stay up for eight hours. The larger Israeli-manufactured Heron is 26ft long and can fly for 52 hours at 35,000ft. Both can carry infrared sensors and sophisticated video cameras which send a live feedback to a remote pilot at a ground station.
Frontex spokesman Edgar Beugels said UAVs may be suited to patrolling borders. He added, “There has been some interest in these from member states for border-surveillance purposes. At the moment we are holding demonstrations to see if these aircraft are a viable tool for border surveillance. They give advantages as far as the possibility of hanging around in a particular area is concerned, possibly for as long as 12 hours, which is much better than a conventional aircraft.”
The biggest obstacle to the operation of large civilian drones is the risk of collision with other aircraft, but Beugels said, “I would imagine that in the not-too-distant future there will be a legal framework in place in Europe to allow these aircraft in unrestricted airspace.”
The European Commission wants to set up the network, which includes using satellites, by next year, so only small drones will be used at first.