M.Y. Phoenix, the first private emergency rescue vessel in the Mediterranean, uses drones to save lives


It is hard not to be moved by the sight of throngs of humanity crowded onto small boats, braced against the vast tumult of the Mediterranean Sea in a desperate bid for safety.

Spurred by the sorry consequence of ever-rising numbers of refugees globally, one couple decided to take action. And drones are helping them to relieve the plight of those who undertake the treacherous crossing to Europe.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), set up by Malta-based philanthropists Christopher and Regina Catrambone, first sailed into action in 2014. Investing $7m of their own cash, they bought a 40m ship called the M.Y. Phoenix and set up the first private vessel to find and rescue migrants in peril on un-seaworthy vessels.

In the first six months of 2015, some 1,867 people drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean – triple the number of the previous year, according to the UN.  

Pinpointing refugees’ exact location in the 2.5 million sq km sea is crucial to saving time, money and lives. This is where the Phoenix’s two surveillance drones come in: MOAS receives notification of a boat in distress and its rough position from the maritime rescue coordination centres.

“[Then] we send the drone to look for it,” explains Martin Xuereb, MOAS’ director. “Once it is identified we go alongside the boat and provide information on its size, condition, how many people are on board, how many men, women and children, and who requires the most assistance. In the meantime we also give everyone a lifejacket.”

In most cases, MOAS is asked to take the migrants onto the Phoenix where they receive medical help in its clinic before being transferred to Italian navy vessels or to Sicily. “In the biggest [rescue of 2014], we had 331 people on board the Phoenix for more than 36 hours,” says Xuereb.

The Phoenix was deployed again in 2015, starting its six-month mission in May. In early June, the charity was involved in the emergency rescue of more than 2,000 people in five separate boats. By July 2015, the charity had saved more than 7,600 people since it started operations in August last year.

The drones push up MOAS’ operating costs – a total of around $550,000 a month – but they are crucial to the mission’s success, according to Xuereb.

“The drones are very much part of the operation and they account for more than half the cost,” he says, noting that last year the philanthropists covered the expense. They have funded two months’ worth of drone use again this year. “The Catrambones invested in saving lives.” 

By Adrienne Cernigoi