Spain Considering UAVs To Supplement Its Maritime Border Security Lineup

By Carlton Purvis

 Spanish border detection systems can spot incoming vessels as far out as 25 nautical miles from the coast, but with increased need for surveillance because of migration and drug trafficking, the Spanish government is testing unmanned aerial vehicles to supplement their current border surveillance capabilities.

All of the main routes of drug trafficking into Spain go across water, said David Rios-Morentin, a manager from the Border Management Systems division of Spanish defense contractor Isdefe. The primary areas of concern are the Canary Islands and the Strait of Gibraltar. Rios-Morentin spoke about Spain’s interest in drones during an informational session at the AUVSI 2011 Symposium on Thursday.

Electro-optic coverage can detect vessels approaching by sea as far as 10 nautical miles away. Additional radar coverage extends 25 nautical miles, but sometimes fast-moving, smaller wooden and rubber watercraft are harder to detect, making them a favorite of drug traffickers headed for the coast. The craft they’re typically looking for are only 5-15 meters long and 1-2 meters above sea level.

Small aircraft are detectable, but hard to stop, he said. A UAV patrolling Spain’s waters would provide authorities with eyes well beyond their 25-mile limit, giving them advance notice and more time to intercept a target.

Rios-Morentin says the government is interested in long endurance UAVs that could cover greater distances, and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capable UAVs, that could be launched from ships at sea.

They’ve tested both the Camcopter from Schiebel and the ScanEagle from Boeing, but said the most promising demo to date has been with the Heron developed by Israel Aerospace Industries. The Heron showed it could detect threats on the coasts and at open sea and could fly as far as 200 nautical miles from the coast.

The operation didn’t bust any traffickers, but it did successfully detect training targets that consisted of rubber boats and small ships. The next step is “more field testing to find out operational and functional requirements,” Rios-Morentin said.

Rios-Morentin said Spanish law enforcement hasn’t yet compared notes with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, which uses drones now to watch the U.S./Mexico border.

photo by the U.S. Navy from flickr

A ScanEagle UAV is launched from the deck of the USS Comstock. 


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