How much is an hour of flight with a Frontex drone?

The EU’s border agency has been stationing the Israeli long-range Heron 1 drone in Malta for more than a year, and another drone is now patrolling the airspace around the Greek island of Crete. Frontex, however, refuses to say how expensive an hour of flight is. It is impossible to compare whether drones cost more than the manned planes that have been flying on behalf of Frontex for five years.

With the new regulation, in 2016 Frontex was allowed to purchase its own equipment. The agency immediately began renting charter planes for aerial surveillance as part of the Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance (MAS). This made Frontex independent from the lending of airplanes or helicopters, which previously had to be lent as part of the agency’s missions to EU Member States.

Manned and unmanned MAS flights

As part of its aviation surveillance activities, Frontex enters into framework contracts with charter companies that provide the planes, personnel required for operation and maintenance, and the technical infrastructure to transmit the recorded data. Such contracts were concluded for four aircraft of different sizes with the companies EASP AIR BV (Netherlands) and DEA Aviation (United Kingdom). Frontex leases drone flights from Malta and Crete from the German branch of Airbus in Bremen.

First, Frontex flew planes over the Central Mediterranean and the Libyan rescue zone on behalf of Italy in search of refugees who wanted to reach the sovereign territory of Europe on boats. When Frontex discovers boats there, it is informed, among others authorities in Libya. The local coast guard then brings people back to North Africa. These collaborations are referred to as the so-called pullbacks, human rights organizations classify them as contrary to international law.

In 2018, Croatia requested a land border service for the first time. Subsequently, Frontex extended its aviation surveillance to other regions. However, most MAS flights still take place over sea.

Nearly 17,000 ‘migrants’ detected in 2020

For the first time, the agency provides figures on operations and flight times. According to Frontex’s response to the request of the MEP Özlem Demirel, in 2020 seven planes, one helicopter and one drone flew on the MAS service. A total of 1,030 “monitoring missions” lasting 4,701 hours were completed.

Thus, Frontex discovered 406 “incidents” and 16,804 “migrants”. In about half of the cases, people were in danger. In 119 cases, Frontex according to their own statements Reports made to Libyan coastguards, which are roughly three times higher than in 2019.

In 2021, deployments of Frontex MAS services dropped by less than half and flight hours fell by only about a quarter to 3,554. Despite fewer take-offs, significantly more sightings were observed than in the previous year. According to Frontex’s reply to MEP Demirel, a total of 461 incidents and 24 299 ‘migrants’ were identified in 2021. Contrary to 2020, it is said that these were almost always maritime disasters.

Much more hours of drone flight

The reason for the noticeable changes will most likely be the start of drone flights from Malta, while the operating hours of aircraft in the region have decreased. Compared to this, Heron 1 drones are also extremely effective. Up to 20 hours, the drone stays in the air much longer than the manned fixed wing aircraft or helicopters that Frontex has previously used in the Mediterranean.

However, it is unclear whether drone flights are disproportionately expensive. The Heron 1 framework contract with Airbus has a value of EUR 50 million, with the agreed 1,200 flight hours supplemented by an additional 1,870 flight hours. Arithmetically, one flight hour would cost EUR 16,286 at this point. However, this does not include additional costs related to the extension of the contract. Under the same framework agreement, Airbus also flies a further 1,200 flight hours on 182 calendar days from Crete.

The new missions are to take place only in Greek airspace and will not pass through other Member States or third countries. Airbus has already performed all necessary test flights and proved the airworthiness of the system. The Greek Coast Guard and the Aviation Authority approved the flight plan. This week happened the first documented flight of Heron 1 in the Ionian Sea.

EUR 200 million for Frontex aviation surveillance

Frontex refuses to provide details of the cost of the hourly flight. Information is “commercially sensitive information” that cannot be disclosed. This is what a Frontex employee wrote to MEP Demirel, who informally asked about expenses for the third time. This email is available on netzpolitik.org.

For the sake of secrecy, it is not possible to check whether drone flights are disproportionately more expensive than manned charter planes. Overall, Frontex has already spent well over 200 million euro on its own aviation oversight in the MAS service under various framework contracts.

MAS flights are now being upgraded again. Apart from Greece, also Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belgium and Malta have asked the service to monitor their borders for the current year 2022. In the last two countries, operations have not yet started. A request made by Italy in late 2021, the launch of which was delayed for unknown reasons, is also being implemented.

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