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Drones over Down Under: Australia to spend $2.7bn on border UAV patrols

Published time: March 13, 2014 15:49
AFP Photo / Robert MacPherson

AFP Photo / Robert MacPherson

Australia has approved plans to buy several Triton drones to patrol the country’s borders at a cost of US$2.7 billion. The government believes the drones can help to prevent illegal immigration.

The fleet of giant, hi-tech drones will be used “to secure…ocean resources, including energy resources off northern Australia, and help to protect our borders,” Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, authorizing the move Thursday.

Asylum seekers frequently attempt to enter the country from Indonesia and Sri Lanka on unsafe boats, which are frequently turned back or sometimes sink offshore, resulting in dozens of casualties.

While a primary aim is to monitor these attempts to enter the country illegally and keep track of energy infrastructure, regional Asia-Pacific tensions have stoked the need for countries in the region to monitor commercial maritime interests more closely.

“They will provide the Australian Defense Force with unprecedented maritime surveillance capabilities, operating at altitudes up to 55,000 feet over extremely long ranges while remaining airborne for up to 33 hours,”
Abbott said. The drones are to be based in Adelaide, southern Australia.

The drones are expected to be used to scan the Indian Ocean – one of the world’s most essential energy supply channels. The South and East China Seas are also considered flashpoints which are thought to require monitoring.

A report released in February confirmed the sum. However, full details of the quantity and the time elapsed before they are utilized is yet to be confirmed. The drones are still being tested by the US Navy.

The Triton Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are still under development by Northrop Grumman (NOC.N), and have a 40 meter wingspan – approximately the size of a small airliner. Drones have infa-red sensors and optical cameras and a wide-ranging 360 degree radar, which can cover a distance from Sydney to London, according to Reuters.

Patrol drone use has been debated for some 10 years in Australia. However, the previous Labor government blocked their introduction, considering the technology to be too immature.

Abbott outlined his defense policy prior to the September 2013 election, stating his Liberal Party’s support for the introduction of Triton-type vehicles, saying it would “closely consider the possibility.”

The defense plan read: “Australia lost its pre-eminent position in the Triton program and delivery schedule because of Labor’s ill thought-out decision in 2009 to delay this program to 2022-23. Unmanned aircraft have the speed, technology and endurance to conduct surveillance over Australia’s vast land and maritime jurisdictions.”

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