No GPS? Air traffic control? Israeli solutions to UAV problems

IDF drone operators credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
IDF drone operators credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Whether it's the need to counter hostile drones, or to transport blood between hospitals, or to make airports safe, Israeli companies are working on it.

How do Israeli aircraft navigate without GPS? Thank Israeli know-how Israeli companies are cooperating with both public and private security and defense entities to provide solutions for jamming aircraft, air traffic management, and non-GPS navigation. Dean Shmuel Elmas When the average Israeli thinks of unmanned aircraft, it is likely they think of a military weapons system manufactured by Elbit Systems, or Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), or Rafael. It turns out, however, that the local industry is active in far broader areas than just military.

Local companies are developing unmanned craft for civilian use, providing GPS-equivalent navigation systems solutions, dealing disruption of hostile aircraft, and providing systems for air traffic management in strategic areas. At the same time, the Israeli education system, whether in high schools or higher education, is adapting to meet the challenge.

Aircraft for different uses

Air taxis and drones to evacuate the wounded

The Israeli aircraft industry is no longer solely military, as defense experts go into civilian life, and make use of their experience. Israel’s defense establishment also benefits from the freedom that engineers and executives in the private sector enjoy, and no few collaborations have formed between them. One example is Yokneam-based Heven Drones, which was founded in 2019, and collaborates with entities such as the Directorate of Defense Research and Development (MAFAT) at the Ministry of Defense, IAI, and the IDF.

Among the products developed by Heven is the H100, an eight propeller drone with a payload capacity of up to 31 kilograms. One of the main challenges for UAVs is how to combine payload and maneuvering capabilities, while not "wasting" energy. The more propellers there are, the greater the weight, which shortens endurance. The H100 can travel at 10 meters per second for a range of up to 33 km in 55 minutes . Another fascinating development by the company, the H2D250, is designed to run on hydrogen, considered the fuel of the future. The hydrogen fuel cells will enable the craft to fly at 28 meters per second, and for up to eight hours.

Attis Aviation, from Moshav Haniel in Hefer Valley, is another civilian company that works with defense contractors like Elbit and Rafael, and with civilian entities, too. Attis offers solutions such as mock enemy drone attacks for defense companies and aircraft development, and also deals in one of the hottest industry sectors: vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities. The government of Dubai recently signed an agreement to launch air taxi services with electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) capabilities in 2026.

eVTOL are electric aircraft that take off vertically, reach the required altitude, and proceed on their course. These aircraft, with a price tag estimated at more than NIS 100,000, have a wide range of uses. In the private sector they are used for aerial photography, for example, but on the battlefield they will be used for special tasks such as evacuating wounded, and heavy logistics. This scenario is not far off, as Pardes Hana-based AIR EV is developing a craft exactly like this.

Another Israeli company is Simlat, which provides training solutions for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), and can simulate different environments and scenarios. Incidentally, many people find operating a UAV on the simulator harder than in reality.

There are also drone companies adapting proven methods from abroad to Israel's needs. Prominent among them is Dronery, which had a massive equipment display at the entrance to the recent UVID Dronetech Conference and Exhibition in Tel Aviv. The company operates autonomous drone delivery and transportation services, working with manufacturers from China and Brazil that provide solutions for logistical tasks. The company was recently part of a feasibility test to transport blood packs between the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa and Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. Its DJI AGRAS service carries out precision spraying and fertilization services.

DJI of China is considered the world's leading manufacturer of drones of all kinds. DJI craft are used for a range of applications, from personal photography and civilian tasks, to operational activities. Their tools are hermetically sealed, "like an iPhone", as one senior Israeli drone operator put it to "Globes". It is, therefore, very difficult to integrate additional capabilities with DJI equipment.

Navigation systems

Non-GPS navigation systems - inertial navigation for aerial photography

Israel’s war against Hamas, launched in the wake of the October 7 massacre, exposed the limitations of GPS and jammers intended to thwart the guidance capabilities of Hezbollah and Hamas drones. While Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah relies on Iranian-made equipment, or at least on Iranian technology, Hamas originally used commercially available equipment, such as, for example, devices manufactured by DJI.

Besides the ability to disrupt the enemy, it is vital that there should be a solution that will enable Israeli aircraft, both civilian and military, to operate without getting lost, crashing, or malfunctioning and landing in Lebanon. Moreover, there are guided missiles and other weapons that require continuous navigation and remote guidance; if based on GPS alone, these simply will not reach their targets.

The main alternative is an inertial navigation system (INS), which measures acceleration and angular velocity to establish position. This system is also used in submarines: a gyroscope measures the angle, an accelerometer measures linear acceleration, and a magnetometer examines the direction relative to the Earth's magnetic field.

About a decade ago, the IDF decided to avoid depending on the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) communication required for GPS navigation. Lod-based Arazim is a veteran player that supplies the inertial sensors required for drone navigation - tiny, lightweight sensors that will not impede flight duration.

Another option is navigation using aerial photography, continuous analysis of the terrain by an advanced camera against earlier photographs. One of the main players in this field is Rosh Ha’ayin-based Asio Technologies, which supplies AeroGuardian, a device that weighs a total of 90 grams and provides a non-GNSS navigation solution for drones.


Shooting down aircraft with a mobile phone

Jammers not only limit GPS usage, but can also be used to shoot down, or take control of, a hostile aircraft. They are sometimes operated via a central control room, other times by remote control, and there are even instances where they are a physical weapon-like device. One interesting example is Petah Tikva-based DefenSync, which is developing a tool for monitoring aircraft movement at strategic facilities.

At an airport, for example, the radar-based system can detect a UAV that should not be there. In the field, an operator uses a mobile device connected to a mobile phone to monitor an aerial map in real time. With the help of a device resembling a shoulder-mounted missile launcher, the operator can even aim and shoot down the aircraft precisely, without damaging other craft in the area. This is a surgical device, unlike dozens of other systems, including jammers, operated by the IDF since October 7.

The defense establishment has hailed Raanana-based D-fend Solutions’ cybersecurity solution as a success. The product is a counter-drone system based on radio frequency (RF) cyber-takeover technology. The radio spectrum is an information environment that is growing in importance, as information technologies develop, and the need for connectivity increases for applications such as, for example, navigation. In light of the growing need for communication, the radio spectrum has become the technological battlefield where D-fend operates.

Air traffic control

Artificial intelligence for continuous drone monitoring

The popularity of drones has made the already difficult task of air traffic control almost impossible. Sometimes, of course, this is unavoidable, for example when security measures involve continuous drone use.

What is needed is an artificial intelligence application that can identify those aircraft that are permitted to move within an area, and those that are not. Tel Aviv-based Airwayz does this in Israel and abroad. Its control system makes it possible to constantly monitor the UAVs in an area; if it is registered and approved, the aircraft will appear in green, but if not, it will immediately be colored red.

Confidence in this product was demonstrated when the Port of Rotterdam, the largest seaport in Europe, chose an Airwayz product for its air traffic control. Why does a seaport need air traffic control? For security and operational reasons, and so that UAVs will not damage the large ships anchored there.

The education system

UAVs and university courses

The Israeli education system is sometimes seen as outdated, or lagging behind the rest of the world, but extraordinary educational ventures have recently been emerging in schools and universities. Hakfar Hayarok youth village school, for example, opened a UAV course that trains students in unmanned aerial vehicles; some graduates have even gone on to successfully complete the Israel Air Force pilot training course.

UAV education also takes place at tertiary institutions. At the University of Haifa, for example, Dr. Gur Mizrahi, an expert in marine biology and drones, teaches a course on unmanned vehicles and advanced technologies as part of a master's degree in national security studies and naval strategy. (Full disclosure: This author is a student in the course).

Israel is considered a technological leader for military UAVs, and the country is a player in such technologies for the private sector as well. Thanks to this educational activity, it can be expected to remain so for many years to come, as young minds emerging from the high schools flourish in the army, and later in the civilian sector as well.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on March 5, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

IDF drone operators credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
IDF drone operators credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
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