Israeli firms advancing drone warfare
Some drones are killing machines, while others are being used to save lives. Some can carry machine guns on to the battlefield, while others can carry mail and medicine to remote parts of the world.
Israel has emerged as one of the major exporters of drones, also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs. The company Israel Aerospace Industries, IAI, developed the Air Hopper that can swoop in and evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield with airborne monitoring of vital signs, sending real-time updates to the ground. It can also transport supplies to troops.
The Air Hopper can take off and land vertically, eliminating the need for an airstrip, and they lack the bulky rotor blades that make helicopters unwieldy in tight quarters.
The AirMule from Urban Aeronautics, another Israeli company, can carry up to 1,400 pounds of cargo with an airspeed of more than 100 miles per hour.
Tal Inbar, Head of the Space and UAV center at the Fisher Institute in Herzliya, told The Media Line that the Israeli UAV industry began in the early 1970s.
“Since then many more industries in Israel in this field have mushroomed,” Inbar said, adding that there are more than twenty companies in Israel involved in the manufacture of UAVs.
The largest companies include Elbit and IAI. Elbit started exporting drones back in 2000. It was a Hermes 450, to an undisclosed client. The Hermes 450 is described as a medium-sized multi-payload UAV with a primary mission of reconnaissance and surveillance.
For years, the military has used drones to get a birds-eye view of complex operational missions and for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance.
There are more than 50 types of drones made in Israel, ranging from small quadcopters and electrical vehicles to loitering munitions (self-destructing drones) launched as a missile that explodes on impact.
“Israel is well situated to cement its position as one of the lead exporter of drones for years to come. That’s in part because Israeli firms are aggressively marketing their drones, for myriad new military and civilian uses, in virtually every corner of the world”, a senior defense official who did not want to be named told The Media Line.
Inbar said many missions traditionally carried out by manned aircraft are now conducted with the use of drones. In fact, UAVs have become a very important item on the shopping lists of many countries. The Israeli military is taking drone warfare to a new level using small multi-rotor drones that can carry machine guns and other kinds of weapons, including the TIKAD drone developed by Duke Robotics, a company run by two former Israeli military veterans.
The TIKAD drone is designed to replace troops on the battlefield. It weighs 110 pounds, can fly at an altitude of anywhere from 30 to 1,500 feet and can carry semi-automatic weapons and a 40mm grenade launcher.
“Duke’s solution generated from a need we experience on the battlefield,” Lt. Col. (Res.) Razi Atuar, Duke Robotics CEO and an Israeli Special Forces veteran told The Media Line. “Sending in a tactical ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) drone without the ability to react is like sending a soldier to battle without a weapon.”
Atuar said the TIKAD drone is remotely operated by troops, easily transported to the field and can stabilize objects up to triple the weight of the drone’s gimbal.
“It is not just a weapon mounted on a drone. We offer on-demand aerial support to the ground troops,” Atuar added.
He thinks drones such as the TIKAD will replace soldiers in war zones, reducing civilian casualties by, among things, eliminating in some situations the need for airstrikes.
Israeli firms are also leading the way in developing payloads, advanced surveillance cameras, sensors, improved communications between drones and pilots and other features expected to expand the use of drones for both military and civilian uses, including law enforcement and agricultural uses. For instance, drones can be used for soil and field analysis, crop spraying and crop monitoring.
Drones have come on to the radar of commercial enterprises and public sector agencies as a way to help tap into new opportunities, improve services, increase visibility and cut costs. Companies like Amazon are hunting for the best drone technology, and postal services in various countries are starting to use drones to deliver mail.
In Africa, drones are also being used to deliver medical supplies to rural communities. The U.S. startup Zipline has partnered with the Rwandan government to launch the world’s first commercial drone delivery service, ferrying vital medical supplies to its remote hospitals.
But the commercial availability of drones is also creating more dangers. Insurgency and terrorist groups are using drones on the battlefield against coalition troops, changing the nature of warfare in the process. Terror groups like Hamas are using improvised, crude RPVs such as standard quadcopters using modified munitions, mostly 40mm grenade launchers. Hezbollah in Lebanon also has UAVs supplied by Iran, according to defense officials. There are reports that Hezbollah may have as many as 200 Iranian-made UAVs intended for attacking Israel.
“Future wars will be more challenging due to the increased numbers of UAVs, limiting the capability of the air force to counter every single drone”, Inbar said.
In the past, Israeli defense companies depended on the U.S. Department of Defense for overall exports. In recent years, the U.S. has enforced stringent rules on the import and export of defense-related products through the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
“Israel is successful in exporting their drones because they are optimizing the technology to allow them to be used for many different missions” Dany Eschar, Deputy CEO of Marketing and Sales at Aeronautics Ltd. in central Israel, told The Media Line.
Israel supplies several Latin American countries with drones, including Mexico, Columbia, Brazil and Chile, as well as several countries in Asia-Pacific and Azerbaijan.
Three years ago Elbit Systems won a contract worth $200 million to supply Switzerland with six surveillance drones, and several years ago, Russia bought UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries.
As worldwide demand increases, growth in Israeli UAV export and licensing agreement values are also expected to grow since they are not subjected to the same “red tape” that hinders the US State Department’s Foreign Military Sales processes, according the global consulting group Frost & Sullivan. It reports that drone exports have amounted to some $4.6 billion over the last eight years and make up nearly 10 percent of Israel’s total defense exports.
Frost & Sullivan also projects that Israeli drone exports will continue to grow from five to 10 percent through 2020. But Israel will have some competition.
“Israel was for many years a spearhead of this industry but in recent years it has been noticed that that other countries are pursuing the ever greater use of UAVs, such as USA and China,” Inbar said. “The drone export market is becoming fiercely competitive”.