Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Could Patrol Europe’s Borders

Farnborough Air Show » 2014
July 12, 2014, 7:00 AM

The European agency tasked with keeping watch over the EU’s external borders, Frontex, is enthusiastic about adopting remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) to help them in that job. But significant challenges–some technical but the majority legal–mean that unmanned aircraft are unlikely to be deployed to help defend EU borders in the near future.

Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s conference, RPAS Today: Opportunities and Challenges, which took place in London last month, Zdravko Kolev, research officer for aerial, ground and sea surveillance sensors and platforms at Frontex, described the EU agency’s long-standing interest in RPAS, and outlined the obstacles currently preventing adoption of the technology.

“Border-surveillance activities take place in wide areas,” he explained.” [The operational requirement runs] from the open ocean to the Greek archipelago, and from Norway to Greece over land,” he said.

Challenges therefore include detecting and tracking small vessels in the maritime domain, and individual people transiting unfenced sections of national land borders in remote and/or forested areas. “A range of systems are needed to meet all these surveillance requirements,” Kolev said. “And, of course, another challenge is how integration [of RPAS] can contribute to redress the limitations of current surveillance systems.”

Frontex developed EUROSUR, the information-sharing system used by EU member states to build a situation-awareness picture for border security, and any potential new sensing technology would need to be integrated into that. A series of demonstrations and test flights aimed at assessing the potential for RPAS in a European border-security role have been carried out by industrial entities, under Frontex direction, since 2009. Maritime, littoral and overland scenarios have been addressed, with flights taking place in France, Finland and Greece.

Kolev explained that the longer endurance that RPAS offer compared with manned platforms is a key potential benefit. In a large number of instances, people attempting to enter the EU illegally by sea arrive in small boats, which, once near land, they scuttle. “They are simply destroying the boats in order to be rescued,” he explained, “so a normal patrol mission becomes a search-and-rescue mission. So from an operational perspective we need extra hours in the air to support these missions.”

The individual national coastguard, police and security agencies involved in the program have been impressed by the available platforms and the rate at which the technology is improving. But the present inability to fly RPAS in airspace not closed to other air traffic means that contracts to acquire systems are unlikely to be agreed for the foreseeable future.

Frontex has been in dialog with Eurocontrol, the pan-European air-traffic management organization, with a view to moving forward on airspace-integration issues.

“Eurocontrol representatives highlighted that solutions provided will be

of a very high value for the RPAS operator community,” said Kolev. “We have also been told that Eurocontrol is really keen to help us solve these problems. But integration of RPAS into normal airspace remains a challenge.”

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