Border Surveillance and AI-based Systems

Towards providing a more complete surveillance solution covering all aspects, the ROBORDER platform aims at developing and demonstrating a fully functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots including aerial, water surface, underwater and ground vehicles which will incorporate multimodal sensors as part of an interoperable network.

The importance of border management during a migration crisis

During February 2020, a migration crisis occurred at the Greek-Turkish borders in Evros, Greece. Due to a series of events in Idlib, Syria, a vast number of immigrants from Turkey searched out pathways towards Europe. The events started on February 28, 2020, when thousands of individuals not necessarily opting for a refugee profile, arrived at the area of the Greek-Turkish borders, trying to pass through the customs area of Kastanies, Evros, Greece. A series of attempts were constantly taking place until the end of March, when the Turkish borders with Greece and Bulgaria closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of security issues were raised during this period, with the profile of the crisis being completely different compared to past events, this time having a very strong and complex geopolitics background. Mitigation measures were identified in two pillars, political and operational. Among others, the political decisions focused on the upgrade to the maximum level of securing the East borders (land, sea) by the Security forces and the Defense Services, the activation of Art. 78 (3) of the of the treaty on European Union and the treaty on the functioning of the European Union as well as the submission of a request to FRONTEX, for providing assistance via RABIT. Moreover, the Presidents of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council arrived at the area, since the events would have an impact to the European Union as a whole, affecting not only Greece.

A predetermined, upcoming crisis

Since April 2021, a specialist on foreign policy and migration of the Brooking Institution, raised a warning with respect to a great migration wave from Afghanistan, which could trigger a new refugee crisis in Europe. Recent events in Afghanistan, where the Talibans have reclaimed leadership, following the decision made by the USA and NATO to withdraw their security forces from the country, the aforementioned warning is close to become a reality. Since the beginning of 2021 it is estimated that around 400,000 Afghans have fled their country, according to UNHCR. According to UNHCR in Afghanistan, 20,000 to 30,000 of them have left during the second week of August. The main question arising is where these populations will be relocated. The new regime welcomes the prospect of anti-regime individuals leaving the country towards neighbor countries such as Iran or Pakistan.

The ability of those countries on supporting new populations of migrants and refugees is under examination, since extra support will be required by other countries of organisations, such as the UNH and the EU, for the establishment of the necessary provisions. Turkey, on the other hand, already acts as a pool of around 4 million migrants and refugees, most of them coming from Syria, and appears to be negative towards the prospect of providing hospitality to new populations.

Under this scope, according to Politio, populations fleeting Afghanistan have no other option than trying to illegally insert the European continent. An evaluation of the recent situation refers to an estimate of 300,000 – 500,000 refugees that will try to reach Europe during the next months, via different paths.

Terrorism concerns

One of the major concerns, among others, is the existence of terrorists among the many thousands of immigrants and refugees coming to Europe. There are many cases where such travels are organised and controlled by smugglers, with people without any documents or any kind of ID being among the groups of travelers. The links between smugglers and terrorists have been identified, leading the EU countries’ Law Enforcement Agencies and the Public Safety Organisations to be alerted for emergent situations to occur, enabling the appropriate security mitigation measures. Moreover, the EC currently invests great amounts of money in research security projects, with the active involvement of FRONTEX.

Security measures in Greece

A number of security measures for prevention of illegal trespassing and activities, in general, have been activated along the Eastern Greek borders, including a fence made of steel, drones, autonomous underwater vehicles occupied with state of the art sensors, two Zepellin-type airships, military, police and coastguard infrastructure, along with support from the volunteers and the active involvement of Frontex. The operational capacities of this hybrid model have been extensively evaluated through pilot demonstrations.

More particular, Greece has acquired two Zepellin-type airships through FRONTEX, which can be employed for surveillance operations. The first was deployed on the airport of Alexandroupolis and the second was located in Limnos Island. Both are occupied with state-of-the art visual sensors, with the ability to provide a visual footage on a range of up to 20 km, thus enhancing the situational awareness on the land and sea borders.

With respect to the steel fence, it is deployed on a width of 27 km along the Greek-Turkish borders in Evros, has a height of 5m and includes specifically designed patrolling paths. Currently there are discussions between the Greek Government and the EU with respect to funding the extension of the fence in the areas of Didimoticho, Soufli and Oresitiada, in order to prevent smugglers from reaching specific points which have been identified as “weak”.

In addition, to increase patrolling and surveillance capabilities in the Aegean Sean, the Greek Military Forces have employed the Heron UAVs. This type of asset enables the Greek LEAs to have a 24/7 enhanced situational awareness from the Aegean Sea. Heron UAVs are able of operating in missions up to 1,000 from their base and are occupied with naval surveillance radars and electro-optical sensors able to operate during nighttime as well.

The Roborder Platform

Towards providing a more complete surveillance solution covering all aspects, the ROBORDER platform aims at developing and demonstrating a fully functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots including aerial, water surface, underwater and ground vehicles which will incorporate multimodal sensors as part of an interoperable network. The project aims at the implementation of a heterogenous robot system and its enhancement with detection capabilities for early identification of criminal activities at border and coastal areas along with marine pollution events. The system is capable of functioning both as standalone and in swarms and incorporate multimodal sensors as part of an interoperable network. Moreover, the developed system is equipped with adaptable sensing and robotic technologies that can operate in a wide range of operational and environmental settings to cover all the aforementioned needs of the relevant border personnel and fulfill the diversity of the challenges. To provide a complete and detailed situational awareness picture that supports highly efficient operations, the network of sensors includes enhanced static networked sensors such as border surveillance radars, as well as mobile sensors customised and installed on the vehicles. These include: (i) passive radars that can extend the capabilities of the existing border surveillance radars, (ii) passive RF-signal sensing devices to intercept emission sources that are present in area, enrich the overall situational awareness picture with this information, allowing for further characterizing the nature and behaviour of entities in the picture, and detecting unauthorized signal sources and (iii) other mobile sensors like thermal cameras (infra-red), optical cameras etc. Towards delivering an operational solution, a number of supplementary technologies is also applied enabling the establishment of robust communication links between the command-and-control unit and the heterogeneous robots. On top of this, detection capabilities for early identification of criminal activities e.g. illegal trespassing and hazardous incidents have been developed. This information is forwarded to the command-and-control unit that enables the integration of large volumes of heterogeneous sensor data and the provision of a quick overview of the situation at a glance to the operators, supporting them in their decisions. Additional command and control functionalities allow for the translation of the intention of the operators into remote actions, automatic selection of the most appropriate composition of hardware (robots, sensors and communication links) for each given situation and easy deployment and operation of the fleets of heterogeneous robots and sensors.

ROBORDER Pilot Use Case

Delivering intermediate prototypes and covering various operational requirements defined by Border Agencies, the developed border surveillance technologies and the ROBORDER platform has been tested in the scope of three main pilot use cases, consisting of several scenarios to cover multiple situations of violations and mostly towards securing the under-surveillance territories. In each evaluation cycle, three different use cases have been tested in different terrains, in order to exhibit the wide applicability of ROBORDER over different scenarios. Such an approach mitigates many risks in order to achieve a fully functional and operational system under such challenging circumstances and environmental conditions.