Israeli army bets big on small drones

IDF dronists Photo: IDF spokesman

The most popular IDF training course for combat soldiers is for "dronists." Elbit is developing a small drone to replace the Chinese drones used by the army.

After ISIS destroyed three armored vehicles in Syria using armed drones and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro survived an attempted assassination using explosive drones, the IDF's interest in drones is increasing.

An investigation by "Globes" shows that IDF training for combat soldiers in recent months clearly indicates the general direction being pursued by the army: more and more activities using drones, among other things in order to reduce risk and confrontation for soldiers in the field.

The defense market is therefore preparing for large-scale procurement programs by the IDF and other defense agencies in the coming years. Today, any defense company that wants to survive is promoting development programs for weapons and systems involving drones, be it improving performance and expanding operational capabilities of forces in the current and the future battlefield, or be it detecting, neutralizing, and intercepting drones operated by the enemy.

A defense source told "Globes" that the business potential of drones designed for the Israeli defense market amounted to "several dozen million dollars a year." This is small change for the large defense companies with sales in the hundreds of millions and billions of dollars a year, but for them, success in this area in the Israeli market is a step in the right and really rewarding direction: the international market. "Every defense company is involved in the area one way or another," the source told "Globes." "Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael, and of course other companies. Many civilian companies are joining the defense companies, because the entry barriers in the sector are low - the basic technology of these tools is very accessible and cheap."

The very availability of this technology poses substantial challenges to companies developing drones for defense uses. "Their task is to improve the tools' capabilities, such as extending their airborne time; expand their ability to operate in stormy weather and strong winds; and develop special equipment to be installed on them. Companies involved in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) (large drones) development programs can more naturally fit into the drones sector," the source added.

New IDF combat soldier category: "Dronist"

The growing demand from IDF units has made the drone operators course on the Sayarim base in the south the IDF's most popular and crowded course. Hundreds of infantry, air force, and navy combat soldiers have already studied there how to make a drone take off, how to make it fly high above the relevant landmarks, and what to do in order to make it an agile intelligence gathering machine in real time.

The demands from the field have led to the creation of a new job in every company regarded as one of the most desirable in field units: "dronist" - a combat soldier attached to a force at all times whose job it is to put a drone into flight when necessary and send the information received from it on to the commanders.

Land units are already operating over 1,000 drones of various types. In some cases, they are part of the event in every out-of-the-ordinary event on the border. "Drones were studied by using them," Maj. Nadav Peretz head of the airborne intelligence section of the IDF Combat Intelligence Corp's border defense system said. "These drones are very reliable, and we've had almost no crashes. If there is such an incident, an error by the operator is usually responsible, but we've also had crashes with UAVs."

Drones give soldiers an immediate solution for tough places. "As an infantryman, I look at the terrain from the terrain," says a dronist from the Rotem battalion in the Givati Brigade on the border of the southern Gaza Strip. "The drone enables me to see and examine any section of territory from completely different angles. Now there are no unseen areas or land folds. I can see everything. When an unusual event occurs and we put a drone into the sky, a lot of things suddenly become clear to us. We see how many people are involved, what they will do next, and how they are trying to challenge us."

The Givati dronist operates the Mavic Pro, a drone that professional personnel selected as the most suitable for use by combat soldiers in infantry brigades. It is small and weighs only 750 grams, can fly for 25 minutes, and comes with a kit carried on the operator's leg that is not a heavy burden for soldier used to carrying heavier weights for long periods. From a height of dozens of meters, the drone is invisible; its buzzing is inaudible, and even a long focused search with the naked eye in its direction will not reveal its presence. "On the other hand, from this height, I can use it to see a suspect's face and obtain incriminating documentation about him without his knowing that I can see him," the dronist adds.

Maj. Shai Gil, responsible for all training and instruction at the Sayarim base, says, "The dronist course is the most intense of them all; a new class starts every week. In comparison with other programs, this training is regarded as far more attractive because of both the drone's operational effectiveness and because it's regarded as an innovative and interesting tool."

The fact that a new sphere is involved is also causing rapid changes in the rules of operation in army units. For example, in one of the activities in which an IDF force operated a drone, its operator was so absorbed in the tablet screen used as a remote control that he did not notice that he was guiding the drone into an unavoidable collision with a high antenna. As a result of that incident, a new procedure was introduced in the army: a lookout was assigned to every drone operator to look at the drone through binoculars and alert the operator if it gets close to trees, poles, antennas, buildings or anything else that can cause a collision.

By last August, 700 soldiers had been trained to operate drones. The IDF estimates that the number of soldiers trained to operate drones will rise to 1,000 next year, and that is only the beginning.

These tools, of course, have completely different prices than those purchased by civilians. Every kit supplied to the IDF is programmed carefully, based on operations research from previous drone operations in different activity scenarios. Every dronist trained to operate a Mavic gets two such drones, two remote controls, and two batteries for each tool. The price of one such kit is estimated at NIS 20,000.

The dronists who operate the Matrice model drone, most of whom are in the Combat Intelligence Corp, receive a much more expensive kit - its estimated price is NIS 150,000.

Elbit Systems' future drone

At the same time that it is training combat soldiers to use drones, the IDF is accelerating its development and procurement programs for advanced drones to meet its future operational needs. The drone on which future vision will be based is being developed by Flying Production, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT).

The IDF calls this a multi-task drone. It is larger than the average drone, and will be powered through an especially quiet electric motor, making it difficult to detect even at low altitudes. It is designed to carry special payloads of up to 3.5 kilograms, to operate at a range of up to 10 kilometers, and to observe targets day and night from a height of 2,000 feet and gather and broadcast tactical intelligence in real time for land forces. In contrast to most drones, which are capable of remaining airborne for up to 30 minutes, this drone is designed to remain airborne for 75 minutes, even in bad weather.

Simultaneously with completion of this drone's development, the IDF is planning to gradually replace the drones currently operated by its units, most of which were manufactured by Chinese company DJI, due to difficulties in encoding them. This problem often prevents their use in highly classified activities.

According to the vision of a source involved in the development program for future military drones, the day is not far off when drones will be operated autonomously on a country's borders, will carry intelligence gathering systems and other systems for disrupting enemy frequencies, and may possibly be armed to attack enemy targets.

If a border fence broadcasts to the war room a warning that it has been touched or crossed, the drones nearest the area of the event will automatically be directed to it, check out the unusual indication, and transfer essential data in real time to a remotely controlled Sentry Tech system, resulting in a deadly burst of fire at the enemy.

Development sources say that from a technological standpoint, this has already been accomplished. Only correct integration, will, and openness to change are needed, and these are in our hands.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 11, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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IDF dronists Photo: IDF spokesman
IDF dronists Photo: IDF spokesman
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