Eye in the sky boosts EU coastal surveillance
Europe's coastline covers tens of thousands of kilometres, providing many opportunities for crime and illegal or irregular entry. An EU-funded project has developed aerial surveillance technology to help protect and secure these vulnerable sea borders.
© The SUNNY project
The European Unions coastline covers more than 60 000 kilometres around the Mediterranean, Black and Baltic Seas as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Every year, many thousands of people attempt to enter the EU illegally from the sea, resulting in 3 000 fatalities or missing persons in 2017, while smugglers often use boats to bring in contraband items such as illegal drugs or cigarettes.
Keeping Europes sea borders safe and secure is a major challenge. Boat patrols are slow and can only cover a limited area but aerial surveillance by manned aircraft is costly. Both methods rely on military technology that does not work well with civil border-security systems.
The extent of smuggling of goods and people into Europe by sea has vastly increased over the last decade, says project coordinator Rory Doyle of BMT Group in the UK. The normal way of patrolling our maritime borders is quite haphazard the coast is enormous and its not practical for manned surveillance by boats or planes, so we wanted to find a less expensive, more efficient approach that could work 24/7.
The skys the limit
In response to this challenge, the EU-funded SUNNY project developed a two-tiered system for unmanned border surveillance. The first component is a large unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone, around the size of a motorbike, which uses a special type of radar to scan the seas over large areas and check for anything suspicious. This might include ships in unexpected locations, people in boats at risk of capsizing, or vessels briefly coming together and then parting, which would suggest the transfer of illicit cargo such as drugs.
This information is sent back to the SUNNY base station a portable computer system that can be packed into a small suitcase where it is analysed by sophisticated software to determine whether or not there is a threat. If so, the system triggers the launch of several smaller drones to take a closer look.
Each of these smaller vehicles is equipped with specific tools, including a hyperspectral sensor that can identify different materials for example, differentiating between a rubber dinghy and a metal boat near-infrared night-vision, and standard video cameras. Action can then be triggered based on this more detailed information, such as tracking the vessels further on their journey, sending out law-enforcement agents or launching a rescue mission.
The SUNNY team has also been monitoring the ethical, legal and social implications of surveillance, balancing the right to individual privacy with the need to keep Europes borders secure.
So far, SUNNY has been tested by intercepting a simulated drug deal. After launching from an army base in Portugal, the main UAV identified two vessels coming together and separating. It then dispatched smaller drones to track the vessels so that the coastguard could intercept them.
The next step is to develop unmanned vessels that can store and launch the drones at sea, which would extend the current range further from the coast. A further innovation could focus on turning SUNNY into a fully autonomous system. At the moment, it sends commands to a remote pilot which directs the vehicles, but it is not yet allowed to steer itself due to legal restrictions.
Although the system works well, legislation currently restricts the use of UAVs in European airspace due to concerns that they could impede civilian aircraft.
There needs to be policy negotiations to ensure that these vehicles can be used and if policymakers can see the benefits of a safe, secure border then we hope that they will take the SUNNY system up, concludes Doyle.