Navy to use more drones after catching smuggler pretending to be refugee

Lt Cmdr Phil Watson with the drone used in the mission.

The Naval Service is set to expand its use of drones after their first deployment on an operational mission proved an outstanding success, capturing critical footage of a people smuggler changing his clothes to blend in with migrants.

The LÉ Eithne, which returns to Haulbowline at the weekend, became the first navy ship to use drone technology during its deployment on humanitarian rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Naval Service sources have disclosed they want to develop a special section for the use of remotely piloted air systems which will use drones to spy on potential drugs and arms smugglers, illegal fishing and identifying pollution at sea.

They hope to make their own specialised drones for such purposes and have them operational within the next few years.

The man in charge of the drones launched from LÉ Eithne, Lt Commander Phil Watson, said they were activated to help quickly access situations before rescue crews arrived at scenes.

They used a commercial Phantom 4 PRO, which can stay airborne for 35 minutes and features a maximum range of 8km.

“We used them predominantly just before a rescue mission was under way,” said Lt Cmdr Watson. “The footage showed how many migrants on crafts didn’t have life-jackets and would also allow us to see the condition of the vessel they were on and if it was sinking. It enabled us to access and prioritise.”

However, during one mission, he said, the Naval Service captured footage of a suspected people-smuggler unaware of the drone as he changed clothes before the migrants on a dinghy he was steering had been rescued.

Lt Cmdr Watson said the suspect tried to pretend he was a refugee or migrant.

When brought onboard, he was discreetly watched for two days and, on berthing in an Italian port to offload the migrants, was pointed out to Italian authorities, who were also provided with the video evidence by the navy.

The officer said the drone also proved effective when a boat came at LÉ Eithne at high speed. The crew were taking no chances and went to action stations, manning machine guns and warning the approaching craft off over the VHF radio.

However, in the meantime, Lt Cmdr Watson was able to buzz the approaching craft with the drone and see there were no arms onboard.

“The man was fleeing Libya and we came across him 40 miles off the coast,” he said. “The reason he was coming for us at speed was that he was running out of fuel. We rescued him. A lot of good lessons were learned from drone deployment. They allowed us to access any threats and to make it easier to save lives.”

The navy must always be on alert, it was emphasised. Islamic State terrorists are present in the area, along with militias who take a percentage of money made by people-smuggling gangs.

To date, the Naval Service has saved the lives of 16,808 men, women and children.

LÉ William Butler Yeats has replaced LÉ Eithne on the mission.

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