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Israel boasts of latest drones, some first used in Gaza

Israel, top drone exporter, hosted an unmanned vehicles conference which displayed systems tested and used in the latest Gaza conflict
Attendees at the 3rd annual UVID conference stand in front of a screen displaying the Israeli made Super Heron HF, in Airport City, on 17 September, 2014 (MEE/Vittoria Mentasti)

AIRPORT CITY – Hundreds of Israeli military personnel, engineers, and defence industry representatives gathered inside an air-conditioned convention centre near Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport this past Wednesday for the 3rd annual Unmanned Vehicle Israel Defence conference (UVID). Israel Defence Magazine and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted the conference that included top drone producing companies - most of them Israeli - along with potential customers. They were there for a day of presentations, panel discussions, and opportunities for new business.

The exhibition hall in the convention centre was buzzing with simulators, displays, and models of the latest advances in drone technology. Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV’s) are the fastest growing sector of the aerospace industry, one in which Israel is the top exporter.  Worldwide sales of the technology and its systems for the next decade are projected to double and top off at almost $100 Million. Unmanned ground vehicles (UVG’s), seen as the future of warfare on the land and sea, were also prominently on display during the conference.

Israel was able to get to the front of the industry through lax export controls, strong ties with the military, and the continuous use of these machines in conflicts with Lebanon and inside the Palestinian Territories, most notably in Gaza. The unique situation provided by an ongoing, local conflict allows Israeli drone companies to rapidly test and develop their systems in real-world combat operations. The final products can then be marketed as battle-tested.

Representatives Express Pride In Their Products

Lori Erlich, director of marketing and communications for Controp, an Israeli company that manufacturers precision optical systems for use on drones, told Middle East Eye that attending the conference was a great way to attract new business. “We've got some international visitors today as well as local visitors, some of them we even had meeting with in the office last week,” she said.

Ms. Erlich, like many others present, also expressed pride with her involvement in an industry that, in her view, is about promoting security. “It's an exciting field to be part of definitely…It's about protecting people, protecting lives,” she said, “I'm happy to be part of it, I know that I can sleep better at night, our kids are protected, out families are protected, and hopefully our country is protected.”

She cited close ties with the military as one of the reasons Israel was able to pioneer drone technology and are now at the top of the industry for sales and development. “All of the people here, in our company, everybody has done the service, and is for the most part doing the reserves, so they come back from the field and they know what's required. A lot of the development comes from field exposure.”

Koby Burshtein, VP of marketing for Bladeworkx, - one of the smaller Israeli companies at the conference - positioned himself behind an infra-red (IR) display as he told MEE how his company’s drones helped provide security for the Jerusalem’s light rail system, this past summer. After clashes in East Jerusalem between Palestinians and police, prompted by the killing of 16 year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, there were numerous attacks against the light rail system. In East Jerusalem, train cars were damaged and whole stations were destroyed. Neither the city nor the police had the capability to provide surveillance of the train line  Millions of shekels [were lost] and we got called by the mayor of Jerusalem…to help protect the train,” Mr. Burshtein said, “We used a drone to fly and basically open the road for the light rail.”

Bladeworkx retrofitted six retail versions of Phantom II drones to carry stabilized IR cameras and patrolled the train line for a month. Mr. Burshtein hailed this mission as the first time a Phantom II was fitted with such a camera and used for a homeland security mission.

Battle Tested in Gaza

Over the summer, during Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military deployed more drones than in any previous conflict. New unmanned vehicles, which had never been used during combat operations, received their first real world testing above, on, and below Gaza. The Israeli military has said that the use of these systems protects their soldiers on the ground while minimising civilian casualties.

Haaretz reported  in early August that the Israeli Air Force was using the Hermes 900, built by Elbit Systems. The drone, known as Kochav (Star), was put into action despite still undergoing flight-testing. The 900 model is able to stay aloft for 12 hours more and carries more advanced avionics and communication systems than its predecessor the Hermes 450, which it replaced for some operations during Protective Edge. The Hermes 900 was sent back for more testing after the conflict ended.

Israel Hayom broke the news of the first ever use of an unmanned armoured personnel carrier (APC), built by G-NIUS – a joint Israeli company of Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems. The UGV, controlled remotely by a driver sitting in front of a display while using a steering wheel and pedals, helped deliver supplies to Israeli soldiers operating inside of Gaza. The vehicle is able to carry about four tons of equipment with no crew on board.

The large network of tunnels below Gaza and running into Israel posed a unique threat to Israel’s military forces that most unmanned vehicles were unable to address. Gal Goren, VP of R&D and Engineering for Roboteam - an Israeli company that specialises in tactical ground robots - detailed how it’s products were used during the fighting during a presentation called “Unground Superiority.” 

Mr. Goren, who is also a reserve officer in the Israeli para-troopers brigade, was embedded with a group of soldiers and taken into tunnels in order to see what kind of obstacles they posed for soldiers and how they could be address by one of his company’s robots. As a result, Roboteam was able to develop a new prototype that was used by an engineering squad tasked with clearing the tunnels. Another Roboteam system, called the Micro Tactical Ground Robot (MTGR), was already deployed with Israeli units and saw its first use during combat operations as well.

The Human Cost

The most recent conflict has devastated parts of the Gaza Strip. Infrastructure is in shambles, entire neighbourhoods have been turned to rubble and over 2,100 killed - a majority of them civilians. For Gazans, UAV’s are an omnipresent threat, their overhead buzzing a constant reminder they are being watched and that a missile strike can occur suddenly and without arming. Drones are seen as just another weapon of war that the Israeli military can employ against them, not a tool used to prevent the killing of innocents.

Mahmood Abu Rahma, director of Communications for Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights, spoke to MEE over the phone from his office in Gaza City about the use of UAV’s during the most recent conflict.

He condemned the “knock on the roof” tactic that was used by the Israeli military, where a small missile - most likely launched by a drone - would explode on the room of a building, signalling those inside to evacuate before a larger strike would occur. “We have documented dozens of cases when these so called "warning missiles"…killed people and they confused people. They made them unable evacuate places that they could have evacuated without the panic that was created by drones.”

Mr. Abu Rahma’s own daughter couldn't sleep for many nights after the ceasefire started, “because she heard the sounds of drones at night,” he said, “it is a very disturbing sound.”

“Especially in Gaza, all kinds of drone technology is baring the tag of combat tested. That is a very important tag [for a] weapon you want to sell.  And it has been tested greatly and it has proven to be a lethal tool,” he concluded.

With the demand for drone systems increasing and the conflict showing no signs of ending, it is clear that Israel will continue to use the Palestinian Territories as a testing ground for many years to come.