Frontex improves its maritime surveillance with AI

The application would be used to combat and prevent unwanted migration and cross-border crime as well as terrorism

With a new platform, the EU border agency Frontex wants to automatically detect and assess „risks“ on the seas of the European Union. Suspected irregular activities are to be displayed in a constantly updated „threat map“ with the help of self-learning software. 

Therefore, the EU border agency has renewed a contract with Israeli company Windward to use the aforementioned „maritime analytics“ platform, which it would then put into regular operation. Frontex had initially procured a licence for the project around €800,000. For now €2.6m, the agency will receive access for four workstations. The contract can be extended three times for one year at a time.

The company Windward specialises in the digital aggregation and assessment of vessel tracking and maritime surveillance data. Investors in the company, which was founded in 2011, include former US CIA director David Petraeus and former CEO’s of Thomson Reuters and British Petroleum. The former chief of staff of the Israeli military, Gabi Ashkenazi, is considered one of the advisors.

The platform is based on AI techniques. For analysis, it uses maritime reporting systems, including position data from the AIS transponders of larger ships and weather data. These are enriched with information about the ship owners and shipping companies as well as the history of previous ship movements. For this purpose, the software queries openly accessible information from the internet.

In this way, a „fingerprint“ is created for each observed ship, which can be used to identify suspicious activities. If the captain switches off the transponder, for example, the analysis platform can recognise this as a suspicuous event and take over further tracking based on the recorded patterns. It is also possible to integrate satellite images.

Windward uses the register of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as its database, which lists about 70,000 ships. Allegedly, however, it also processes data on a total of 400,000 watercraft, including smaller fishing boats. One of the clients is therefore the UN Security Council, which uses the technology to monitor sanctions.

The company advertises its applications with the slogan „Catch the bad guys at sea“. At Frontex, the application is used to combat and prevent unwanted migration and cross-border crime as well as terrorism. Subsequently, „policy makers“ and law enforcement agencies are to be informed about results. For this purpose, the „risks“ found are visualised in a „threat map“.

Windward put such a „threat map“ online two years ago. At the time, the software rated the Black Sea as significantly more risky than the Mediterranean. Commercial shipping activity off the Crimea was interpreted as „probable sanction evasions“. Ship owners from the British Guernsey Islands as well as Romania recorded the highest proportion of ships exhibiting „risky“ behaviour. 42 vessels were classified as suspicious for drug smuggling based on their patterns.

The information from maritime surveillance is likely to be processed first by the „Risk Analysis Unit“ (RAU) at Frontex. It is supposed to support strategic decisions taken by the headquarters in Warsaw on issues of border control, return, prevention of cross-border crime as well as threats of a „hybrid nature“. Frontex calls the applications used there „intelligence products“ and „integrated data services“. Their results flow together in the „Common Integrated Risk Analysis Model“ (CIRAM).

For the operational monitoring of the situation at the EU’s external borders, the agency also maintains the „Frontex Situation Centre“ (FSC). The department is supposed to provide a constantly updated picture of migration movements, if possible in real-time. From these reports, Frontex produces „early warnings“ and situation reports to the border authorities of the member states as well as to the Commission and the Council in Brussels.

According to its own information, Windward’s other clients include the Italian Guardia di Finanza, which is responsible for controlling Italian territorial waters. The Ministry of the Interior in Rome is also responsible for numerous EU projects aimed at improving surveillance of the central Mediterranean. For the training and equipment of the Libyan coast guard, Italy receives around €67m from EU funds in three different projects. Italian coast guard authorities are also installing a surveillance system for Tunisia’s external maritime borders.

Frontex now wants to improve its own surveillance capacities with further tenders. Together with the fisheries agency, The agency is awarding further contracts for manned maritime surveillance. It has been operating such a „Frontex Aerial Surveillance Service“ (FASS) in the central Mediterranean since 2017 and in the Adriatic Sea since 2018. Frontex also wants to station large drones in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, it is testing Aerostats in the eastern Mediterranean for a second time. These are zeppelins attached to a 1,000-metre long line.

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