EU border patrol agency Frontex announced Friday that it is in talks with industry for using remotely piloted aircraft for maritime surveillance, adding drones to its existing portfolio of satellite and sensor technologies for monitoring vessel traffic and migrant flows.
"While at the moment there is no European legislation that allows the use of remotely piloted aircraft in shared airspace, the preliminary discussions were meant to explore the feasibility of extending the pool of assets providing aerial surveillance services," the agency said.
It intends to conduct its first operational tests of the aircraft later in 2016.
The agency’s operations have progressively expanded over the course of the last two years as an unprecedented migrant crisis has shaken European politics; the European Commission has proposed folding Frontex into a new European Border and Coast Guard with expanded authority and twice as many personnel, and the measure is making its way through the EU's legislative process. At present, Frontex is dependent upon individual member states' coast guards, with widely varying assets, capabilities and practices. Analysts suggest that a unified EU coast guard and border force is a longstanding dream of European federalists.
The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), in collaboration with the European Space Agency and Portuguese drone manufacturer Tekever, has already announced plans to test maritime surveillance drones for maritime domain awareness and ECA sulfur emissions monitoring.
“Member states are struggling to enforce the low-sulfur directives,” said Leendert Bal, EMSA’s head of operations, speaking to the Wall Street Journal in November. “And there are a lot of concerns by shipowners that there is no level playing field. So we need to do as much measuring as possible, and drones will help us do more measurements.”
Earlier this month, the European Commission requested a budget of about $25 million annually to support EU-operated migrant-monitoring maritime drones - to be operated by EMSA. In negotiations, Germany objected to the plan on the grounds that EMSA is a maritime safety authority, and it is pushing for drone operations to be handled by Frontex for border patrol purposes.
Maritime UAVs are already in operation in the U.S. for national security missions, with more and larger models under development.
The U.S. Coast Guard operates Predator drones with the U.S. Border Patrol for surveillance and interdiction, and is testing the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle system, an eight-pound payload ship-launched system with optical/infrared sensors and an endurance of 24 hours.
For military applications, the U.S. Navy's Air Systems Command and Northrop Grumman are developing the unmanned MQ-4C Triton, a variant of Northrop's highly successful Global Hawk UAV. The Triton has a claimed operating radius of 2,000 nm and a maximum payload of 6,000 pounds, including built-in radar and infrared telemetry instruments. It is nearing a decision for small-scale initial production.
Analysts Frost & Sullivan have suggested that growing interest in maritime surveillance technology - including drones - could make it a $56 billion sector of the defense industry by 2022.