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Spy in the sky to hunt the fish pirates

Jasper Copping / London Telegraph | September 10 2006

Unmanned spy planes are being developed to police British waters and combat illegal fishing.

Robotic drones similar to those used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan are being adapted to detect rogue trawlers in areas where fishing is prohibited.

They will be able to direct surface vessels to intercept the trawlers and record video evidence for use in court.

advertisementTrials of a prototype drone, being developed as part of a £32 million project, have taken place off the coast of Scotland.

The Marine Fisheries Agency (MFA), which monitors fishing in British waters has expressed an interest in using them. It currently relies on Royal Navy ships and some manned flights to tackle illegal fishing.

Last year, 1,466 fishing vessels, including 822 foreign registered craft, were searched at sea on suspicion of being involved in illegal fishing. More than 100 of those faced further action.

The drones would significantly enhance the ability to police United Kingdom waters and keep out foreign registered vessels. They would also monitor inshore areas where trawling is banned.

The unmanned vehicles will be able to detect pockets of hot air known as thermals. These give the aircraft lift, allowing them to glide without power for long periods and stay airborne for longer.

The development has been welcomed by the fishing industry which blames the black market of illegally caught fish for pushing down prices and threatening stock levels.

David McCandless, from the North Eastern Sea Fisheries Committee, which manages fishing activity along the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire coastline, said: "It would certainly be an interesting tool."

Last year 28 skippers in the North Eastern area were prosecuted for illegal fishing and this summer has seen an increase in raids by trawlers from France.

During one three day period, French trawlers were responsible for destroying 2,000 lobster pots belonging to fishermen based in Bridlington, Yorks, causing more than £100,000 in damage and lost earnings. Fisheries protection vessels alerted by British skippers, did not arrive in the region until a week later, by which time the offenders had already left.

Bertie Armstong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, Britain's largest trade association for fishermen, which represents 2,000 vessels, said: "If you are upset about a ship from another nation carrying out wrongdoing then quicker enforcement can help because a 12 knot vessel can be seen coming."

The fisheries drone is being produced as part of a project called Astraea to develop the next generation of unmanned aircraft with a wide range of non-military applications. It is being jointly funded by the Government and eight companies, including the weapons manufacturer BAE Systems. At present, unmanned aircraft are banned from offshore areas because of the high volume of civilian and military aircraft operating there but the project is developing technology that will allow drones to fly safely among other air traffic.

Simon Jewell, who is heading the project, said a drone could even be able to tell whether a trawler was using nets of an illegal size. "Rather than just being a passive radar sweeping the sea it may be able to assess the data it receives, to apply logic and make a judgment on a trawler that it detects."

He said the new drones, which can pick out a lobster pot – not much bigger than a football – from several thousand feet in the air, could be flying in five years.

All fishing boats over 50ft are currently fitted with a global positioning system that allows the MFA to track all vessels, although it does not reveal whether they are fishing illegally.

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