May 17, 2017      

Europe, whose nations once sent colonists all over the world, has been struggling with an influx of refugees from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. The migrant crisis has challenged politicians across nations, and European drones are part of the debate.

In 2015, a record 1.3 million people fled to Europe, according to the Pew Research Center. A Polish politician said the country would not accept even one refugee because of security fears. Switzerland, Denmark, and the Czech Republic were criticized for confiscating valuables from refugees to pay for their expenses.

Concerns about immigration fed into the U.K.’s decision to exit the European Union. Geerts Wilder and Marine le Pen’s nationalistic appeal threatened the EU’s existence before their electoral defeats in the Netherlands and France, respectively.

By contrast, Germany, which accepted 1.1 million migrants in 2015, the highest number in its postwar history, had a different plan. It has pushed €1 ($1.1) per hour job scheme, whereby refugees work in various roles, such as in restaurants or cleaning sidewalks.

As many European governments move to restrict immigration, they have turned to unmanned and autonomous systems to monitor the movement of people. Let’s take a look at the European drones in use and how this is affecting the development and purchasing of autonomous systems.

Business Takeaways:

  • The ongoing refugee crisis has led to greater use of European drones for security.
  • U.S. vendors have a leading market position because of their military experience and participation in NATO, but countries such as Israel and Sweden are working on their own innovations.
  • Expanding adoption of European drones is leading to new policies and uses beyond public safety.

Robots secure European ports

Early last year, a robot called “Emily” was reported to be helping the Greek coast guard stop migrants from drowning. Emily has multiple tools at its disposal and can function as a buoy. In addition, the system includes Fotokite drones to provide an aerial video feed of what is taking place in the water.

Farther north, Finland tested drones on its border with Russia to keep track of the growing number of migrants.

The EU later announced a €22 million ($24.48 million) project for drones to monitor migrants coming to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. The European drones will be equipped with videos, sensors, and “chemical sniffing” technology. This is noteworthy because they could also be used to identify polluters.

Last summer, Switzerland operated Aerospace Ranger Su-27 drones, developed by Switzerland and Israel, on its border with Italy to identify illegal immigrants. Drones observed thousands of people walking to Austria after trains stopped coming from Hungary.

In addition, the U.K. planned to deploy drones in France to monitor the Channel Tunnel. The drones include thermal imaging capabilities. They are likely connected to an earlier €2 billion ($2.2 billion) deal for the U.K. and France to jointly create a “next-generation” drone platform by 2030.

In March, the European Maritime Safety Agency awarded €76 million ($84.7 million) to the Portuguese Air Force, Portuguese company Tekever, and Italian drone provider Leonardo for coastal security.

European drones for security include those supplied by U.S. companies.

NATO has acquired Global Hawk drones for monitoring migrants.

Organizations put eyes in the sky

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is also getting involved. The defense bloc is in the process of procuring Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drones, currently used by the U.S. for surveillance. One NATO goal is to keep tabs on the number of migrants crossing into Europe from Libya, as well as tracking the smugglers of people and illegal goods.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which previously addressed migrants in Southeast Asia and the Aegean Sea, has deployed two vessels and two drones to monitor the Mediterranean. The charity’s drones can keep operating for up to six hours and can travel between 100 and 247 km/h (153.4 mph).

As European drones become the de facto tool for governments to monitor refugee flows, they could have a profound effect on the local robotics industry. The humanitarian and political crisis has provided a foundation for drone demand and adoption.

The future of European drone use

Soon, law enforcement authorities could use European drones to deal with other problems, such as illegal drugs. In addition, the establishment of an autonomous infrastructure could someday include a continent-wide logistics network.

There’s no limit to the creative use of unmanned aerial vehicles. For example, the Word of Life, a church in Sweden, planned to drop tiny electronic Bibles into ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq through drones.

Also, the University of Sweden has developed technology to enable drones to operate without human input. The technology was adopted from insects in the Panama rainforest. While this is still in its early phase, how will European drones improve on autonomy?

On May 12, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) began the review process for new regulations affecting unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

By harmonizing rules, the EASA hopes to standardize software safeguards against collisions, provide for pilot qualifications (including for smaller UASes), and encourage the development of the commercial European drone market.

More on European Drones and Global Robotics:

Technology guides policy

In the past, Europe has turned to political agreements and rules to manage international challenges. In the 21st century, European drones are leading the way to management of the migrant crisis.

In addition, European governments are laying down the foundation for robotics to expand into other areas such as precision agriculture and drone deliveries. The conditions for advanced drone innovations are also emerging.

From monitoring human flows, stopping criminals, and delivering medicine, the long-term effects of European drone use have yet to be seen. But there’s no doubt that it will affect the development of robotics in Europe and beyond.