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Israel’s Mini Spy in the Sky

[Lachish training base, Israel] The Israeli army has unveiled its latest tactical weapon – a miniature spy-in-the-sky that can be launched by an infantry unit in the battlefield to see over hills up to 10 miles away.

Called the Skylark I-LE, it weighs only about 15 pounds and has a wingspan of about nine feet. Carried in a backpack by a foot soldier, it can be assembled by a two-man team and ready for launch by catapult in less than 10 minutes. It is then controlled by a simple laptop computer system.

The Skylark does not carry any weapons. Instead it has a payload of advanced optical and thermal imaging that can send high-resolution images directly to the field unit 24 hours a day, in light or darkness, enabling them to track enemy movements, problems with the terrain, or the presence of non-combatants on the battlefield.

It can also be used for force protection and perimeter security, using surveillance to defend against threats within a 10-mile range.

Although it looks like a remote-controlled toy, it carries an onboard computer, advanced avionics and a high-tech stabilizing payload based on much larger unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Each mini-Skylark costs about $50,000. Elbit Systems, the Israeli manufacturer, says the tiny craft has already logged more than 3,000 operational missions with allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the Second Lebanon war in 2006, Skylark mini-UAVs were operated by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) units performing close-range reconnaissance missions in support of the ground forces, providing valuable real-time intelligence. Because they are small and almost silent, Skylarks were able to operate at very low altitudes practically undetectable.

The Skylark flew more than 600 operational hours for the IDF during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last January.

“Before the infantry got in Gaza our teams threw the UAVs over Gaza and searched the entire area where they were going to go and said if it was clear, not clear, if you should go or take another route because it would be hard to walk there, or if there was an enemy over there,” Sgt David Tzoor, commander of an IDF artillery unit, told The Media Line in an exclusive interview at the Lachish training base in southern Israel.

“You can watch the enemy before it comes to you or before you are going to attack it, to plan all sorts of operations,” Tzoor said. “It can direct fire to any given target. The operator on the ground system operates the camera and gives the plane commands.”

“You can’t identify someone’s face but you can say if it’s a woman or a man or if he carries a weapon,” he said. “If it’s a dog, if it’s a cow, for example – you can detect those kinds of things.”

Tom Zayderman, chief instructor for manufacturers Elbit Systems, says you shouldn’t judge the Skylark by its small size.

“It’s the size of a toy aircraft but it’s much smarter than a toy aircraft,” Zayderman told The Media Line. “It has a flight control computer in it. You have the payload which is the camera. It looks easy and simple but it’s very complicated avionics and electricity inside of it, so it’s very different.”

“It’s pretty easy to operate,” said Zayderman. “You don’t need any experience. It’s a very friendly system and it’s based on the concept of autopilot autonomous flight. It allows the operator to focus on the image, to focus on the mission and the UAV will do all the flight by itself.”

“It can handle sandy areas like in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Skylark One has had a lot of flight operational hours, and here in Israel in a very rocky area,” he said.

The Skylark can stay airborne for more than three hours and when it’s time to land the operator sends a command that inflates a small airbag under the fuselage and cuts the engine. It simply floats back to the ground, ready to be used again.