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Here's proof the UK is using drones to patrol the English Channel

At 9.59pm on December 9, an aircraft appeared over the English Channel. On aviation website FlightAware, the flight popped up suddenly, already airborne at 240 metres. In neon green, the flight-tracking website showed an apparently muddled path, tracing a scribble alongside the coastline between Dover and the village of Camber before landing at Lydd Airport in Kent around four hours later.

FlightAware labelled the flight under the tail number G-TEKV, a code that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) database registers as a “fixed-wing landplane (unmanned)”. Aka: a drone.

The flight took place four days after the BBC revealed unmanned aircraft would be flying from Lydd Airport to monitor people attempting to cross the channel from France by boat, a phenomenon that was declared a “major incident” in December 2018 by Sajid Javid, when he was home secretary. Since then, the number of migrant crossings has continued to rise. In 2019, at least 1,892 people had arrived in Kent and Sussex in small boats, according to research by the BBC. Another 1,235 attempting the journey were intercepted by authorities in France.

A spokesperson for the CAA said drones should not appear on flight trackers, but could not explain G-TEKV’s presence on the site. The Home Office said it has access to aerial surveillance, and works with partner agencies to make use of available assets. A spokesperson declined to comment on what company manufactures the drone based at Lydd, citing commercial sensitivities.

CAA records show the unmanned aircraft flying with the tail number G-TEKV is the 7.3m x 4.0m AR5 model manufactured by the Portuguese IT, defense and aerospace group Tekever. In the UK, G-TEKV is registered to Tekever’s office in the University of Southampton’s Science Park. (Incidentally, the company was visited by local MP Caroline Nokes in August 2018, when she was immigration minister).

Lydd is less like an airport and more like a faded village hall overlooking a handful of hangars and an airstrip that runs almost parallel to the Kent coast. On pilot forums, it is generally described as windswept and desolate with middling food.

When I first visited the airport, two people confirmed Tekever’s presence there, adding the company had an office upstairs and were currently occupying Hangar One. When approached, a man at Hangar One, who confirmed he worked for Tekever, refused to comment and instead referred me to the CAA. The doors of the hangar remained closed.

On Saturday January 4, a communication known as Notice To Airmen was published, warning of a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operation around Lydd and the English Channel between 10pm and 7am. I returned to the airport, and just after 10pm, the door of Hangar One started to open, revealing the single drone kept inside.

The bright hangar lights were reflected in the unmanned aircraft’s polished white exterior and the drone’s shape – like a small plane without windows – better resembled a fearsome military drone than the quadcopters flown by hobbyists in Britain’s parks.

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A man in a yellow hi-vis jacket silently rolled the drone out of the hangar and onto the dark runway. Its twin-engines started with a whirring noise that could be mistaken for the motor of a small boat. After take-off, its lights could be seen tracing circles as it climbed to reach altitude.

Tekever, the CAA and the Home Office all declined to comment on the type of drone being used to monitor the Channel.

“We will not stand by while ruthless criminals put the lives of vulnerable people at risk,” said a Home Office spokesperson, referring to people smugglers. “We will continue to work with French and UK law enforcement agencies to pre-empt crossings and do everything in our power to prevent boats from leaving French shores.”

They added: “Our extensive work with the French has seen patrols on French beaches doubled and equipment including drones, specialist vehicles and night vision goggles deployed to tackle these illegal crossings.”

This would not be the first time Tekever has provided its AR5 drones for border surveillance operations. As of December, the company had an active contract with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), an EU agency that provided drones directly to six member states between 2018 and 2019 for both maritime surveillance as well as pollution monitoring. More recently, the company was awarded a contract by the UK Ministry of Defence, to trial the deployment of drones that could be operated from a helicopter.

Back in 2015, Tekever CEO Ricardo Mendes told Reuters about plans for the company’s AR3 model to take part in missions for Frontex, the EU border protection agency. “[The idea is] to have eyes on targets sooner, to keep eyes on targets longer, before the vessel is able to reach the point of interest,” he said, speaking at the Paris Air Show. “It’s just a faster, cheaper, more effective way of having eyes on targets.”

German journalist and activist Matthias Monroy, who tracks the use of border drones on his blog, says Europe is still in an experimental stage with this technology. Monroy is worried about the use of military technology now being used in homeland defence. “Even if the drones are not armed, I would see this as a kind of militarisation,” he says. Speaking about the use of drones in mainland Europe, he adds: “They are there to prevent people entering the EU, not to help them.”

The decision to use drones to monitor the English Channel does not solve some of the thorniest questions the EU has already faced in the Mediterranean. A 2016 paper by The University of Twente in The Netherlands underlined how drones are only “sense-and-detect technology”, unable to help with the core issue of “rescuing a boat with migrants in distress.”

It is not only states that have used drones to monitor borders. The technology has also been used by a wide range of non-governmental groups to support their own aims. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station loaned two Schiebel S-100 Camcopters to assist with its search and rescue work in the Central Mediterranean and Aegean Sea between 2014 and 2016. MOAS director, Regina Catrambone, credits the drones’ heat sensors for helping the group save lives.

The first-known use of border drones was back in 2004, when activist Glenn Spencer, whom the US civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center described as “a vitriolic Mexican-basher and self-appointed guardian of the border” used a drone to monitor the dividing line between Mexico and Arizona. More recently, far-right UK group Britain First said they were using drones as part of their anti-migrant “patriot patrols” around Dover. A government ban in November put an end to the plot.

This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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