Exclusive: Drones searching for migrant boats crossing Channel to be controlled from new 'command centre' in Dover

The Coastguard building in Dover - Steve Finn
The Coastguard building in Dover - Steve Finn

Drones used to spot boats carrying migrants across the Channel will be controlled from a high-tech command centre in Dover as part of a raft of new measures designed to combat illegal crossings, the Telegraph can reveal.

The Home Office has established a specialist “cell” inside Dover Coastguard station on top of the white cliffs to be the “lynchpin” of an enhanced cross Government operation codenamed ‘Altair.’

Spearheaded by the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney, the station will direct all operational activity – at sea, in the air and on land – in an attempt to make the crossings unviable and gather the evidence needed to prosecute traffickers.

The unit of around 20 people is made up of Border Force, police, coastguard and the military, and for the first time, drones stationed at Lydd airport will be operated by personnel in Dover, who have a perfect vantage point looking out to sea.

The cell has been established to join together the partner agencies working to combat people smuggling across the Channel.

Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, Dan O'Mahoney - Geoff Pugh 
Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, Dan O'Mahoney - Geoff Pugh

A new direct line of communication has been established with counterparts in France, designed to speed up the sharing of live operational and intelligence information.

As part of the new measures, the unit will receive specialist weather reports which detail conditions out at sea and the likelihood of “weather windows” when people may try and cross.

“Intelligence shows that organised crime gangs target days of calmer weather for attempted crossings and the most recent data shows that – as a result of improved intelligence sharing, enhanced surveillance and patrols of the French beaches - crossings on days with the most favourable conditions have dropped by more than 70 per cent since September,” the Home Office said.

New radar technology is also being trialled and rolled out, which should provide more accurate real time coordinates of small boats in the water.

State-of-the-art aerial and maritime technology is also being trialled, with an unmanned high-speed military boat called MADFOX undergoing sea tests last month.

The 41-foot boat with radar and camera systems is capable of speeds of more than 40 knots, and can be controlled from the new command centre.

In the sky, the unit is continuing to use the Tekever AR5 fixed wing drone, which can cruise at 60 mph at heights of hundreds of metres, and is understood to have played a key role in helping track and arrest Channel migrant trafficking gangs.

It has been deployed alongside the Ministry of Defence’s Watchkeeper drone, which can reach 16,000 feet with a range of 100 miles and was used by the Army in Afghanistan.

Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, Dan O’Mahoney said: “Significant steps were taken last year, including increased surveillance and more patrols on beaches, which have made crossing the Channel in this dangerous and unnecessary way harder than ever. Improved intelligence sharing has meant that the French prevented more than 6,000 attempts last year, but we know that more needs to be done.

“By setting up the new command cell we are making the UK’s and French law enforcement response more agile than it has ever been. It will ensure we have the right capability in the right place at the right time to stop boats from leaving French beaches and to deal with people who do make it into the water, protecting lives and bringing the criminals responsible to justice.”

The new unit is being launched at an important time.

In 2020, some 8,400 people arrived on British shores having left northern France - four times as many as in 2019.

Late last year, Priti Patel signed an agreement where Britain would pay £28 million to the French so that they can double the number of police that can patrol their beaches.

But the tide has not been stemmed yet. On Thursday, two more boats are understood to have crossed the Channel carrying a total of 17 people.

However, 78 more were stopped at sea by the French authorities.

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