EU to use Tekever drones to help in Mediterranean migrant crisis

(Reuters) - The Portuguese navy plans to use drones to help survey the Mediterranean as the European Union steps up efforts to track and rescue thousands of migrants risking often deadly sea crossings from Africa.

The AR3 Net Ray drones, built by Portuguese IT, defense and aerospace group Tekever, will be based on a frigate and will take part in missions for EU border protection agency Frontex, Tekever Chief Operations Officer Ricardo Mendes said.

“(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,” Mendes said at the Paris air show. “It’s just a faster, cheaper, more effective way of having eyes on targets.”

The tide of migrants and refugees risking the crossing to reach Europe from Africa is on the rise this year and the U.N. refugee agency estimates 1,850 people have drowned or are missing. About 800 perished in a single shipwreck in April.

The EU has bolstered its presence in the Mediterranean, with increased search and rescue missions. An international fleet rescued almost 5,900 migrants from rickety boats on the first weekend of June, Italy’s coastguard said.

Tekever was invited to carry out trials of the AR3 Net Ray drone with the navy and now “is ready”, Mendes said, adding that they had been used in NATO exercises.

“The drones have already been tested in open seas, under real conditions,” he said. “They have been tested for search and rescue purposes, searching for vessels, searching for people in the water, anti-piracy missions, etc.”

The AR3 Net Ray is a 14-kilo drone launched using a catapult, which can fly for 10 hours using 10 litres of fuel and has the option of using a parachute to land.

“It provides a lot of safety, because you don’t have to have a pilot there,” Mendes said. “So if you lose the equipment ... you don’t lose a human life. In terms of efficiency ... it allows you to have much less weight, much less power, etc.”

Tekever’s drone customers are mostly military and security forces. Countries from South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia have been seeking them for maritime and nature-protection missions.

But the commercial market is now growing, with demand from oil, power and telecom companies, Mendes said. A drone package including ground stations, parts and training can cost around 500,000 euros ($562,150).

Editing by James Regan