It was no ordinary takeoff. One soldier stepped backwards, holding a gray Sky Rider Drone connected to a sling, while a second held a digital wind gauge and communicated with a base station.
“Twenty knots. Hold off on takeoff, the wind is too strong,” the second soldier said, acting as a one-man control tower.
Soon, the winds died down and permission was given to take off. The first soldier released the drone and, within seconds, it disappeared. Then its quiet electric engine became inaudible, although the drone was hovering nearby.
At the base station, high-quality color video feed from the drone came in on one screen. Another screen displays the drone’s position for the controller.
This is the Sky Rider unit in action, a small team of Artillery Corps soldiers operating a tactical drone that is providing a growing advantage to the IDF.
“We’re a small airpower unit, but we’re part of the ground forces,” explains unit commander Sec.-Lt. Itzik Cohen.
At any time, one of the units may be on the border with Gaza, Lebanon or Syria. It can join a special forces unit or take part in larger-scale combat, as it did during Operation Pillar of Defense in November, when the drones provided high-quality, detailed intelligence on what was going on in the Gaza Strip.
“We can show infantry units what’s happening on the ground two hours before they enter an area. We show them what’s around the corner and behind the wall,” Cohen says.
The Sky Rider is relatively new, having officially entered into operation in 2010.
The unit is not only about providing intelligence, but also helps ensure highly accurate fire from an array of ground forces.
“We can broadcast coordinates of targets to tanks or cannons and then hover in the air to see if the targets have been struck. If there’s a miss, we can report that in real time and direct the next strike to target,” Cohen says.
“We’re a green [army] unit that operates in the sky,” he adds.
Asked why the unit was developed as part of the Artillery Corps, Cohen says, “We’re a very technological corps, known for accuracy in fire power. We use cutting-edge radar systems and specialize in employing technology in a good way.”
Due to its small size, the Sky Rider drone does not require a takeoff or landing strip.
The units are highly mobile and can be dispatched to assist any force.
“The units can load the drone and equipment on their backs and simply walk to where they need to go,” says Cohen.
“We don’t have to be adjacent to ground forces to assist them. We can provide intelligence from kilometers away. That’s a very significant advantage.”
Cameras on board the drone include one that provides thermal imaging, allowing nighttime observation.
And there are plans to link the Sky Rider drone to the IDF’s Digital Ground Army system, which creates a computer-generated map that shows movement of friendly and hostile forces in real time.
Despite its uniqueness, the unit has yet to make a name for itself. “When I’m asked where I serve and I say ‘Sky Rider,’ they say they haven’t heard of it,” Cohen says with a smile.
Nevertheless, Cohen says he finds his service highly satisfying. “We work with a wide range of forces and elite units. We get to know the army from a different vantage point, in a way others don’t. And we operate a drone. It gives me satisfaction, knowing that I did something significant for the country’s security.”
The unit is also called into action when there is an alert about an intruder from hostile territory, such as from Gaza. The drone can become airborne in a matter of minutes and send live video feeds to the control room of a regional infantry brigade tasked with finding the infiltrators.
The drone can hover for up to two hours, at varying heights. “It’s so small that it can’t be seen. Nor can it be heard, since its engine is electric and quiet. Those being watched don’t know it is there,” Cohen says.
Its slow speed and small size mean that the drone is also invisible to radar.
Sky Rider is playing an increasing role in counter-terror raids in the West Bank, sending down images of villages as arrests occur. Its video images have been used to conduct surveillance of rioters and later help prosecute them in court.
The drone is part of the Ground Forces Command’s initiative to have as wide a range of capabilities as possible available in house rather than relying on the air force, which could cause delay in operations.
In any conflict with Hezbollah, Sky Rider units will march with ground forces into Lebanon to provide vital aerial support.
Should the units enter a dense Lebanese forest, the drone will be launched from Israeli territory and be “taken over” by a Sky Rider unit inside Lebanon.
These possibilities require the unit’s members to be in good physical shape.
During training, they march 70 kilometers, while carrying 50 kilograms each.
“Our aim is to move by foot. When we enter Lebanon, we’ll be walking together with an infantry brigade and we’ll have to carry the equipment on our backs,” Cohen says. “We train intensively, so that each member of the crew can carry out all the roles.”
After about an hour, it’s time for Sky Rider to land. At an altitude of 70 meters, the drone produces an air bag and receives an order to cut power to its engine. It plummets to the ground, ready to go back up again soon.