How Israel became a leader in drone technology

Israel did what it generally does best – to innovate using existing technology to solve a problem that Israel faces.

HERMES 45, a new drone by Elbit Systems, which it describes as a ‘Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System’ (STUAS), made its first appearance at the Paris Airshow 2019. (photo credit: ELBIT SYSTEMS)
HERMES 45, a new drone by Elbit Systems, which it describes as a ‘Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System’ (STUAS), made its first appearance at the Paris Airshow 2019.
(photo credit: ELBIT SYSTEMS)
The Iranians manning their Third Khordad missile battery might have wondered if their system could bring down an American on June 20 when they got orders to fire at a target miles away over the Gulf of Oman. Iran had been watching the drone since it left an air base just after midnight. It was a big target, a sophisticated American drone known as a RQ-4A Global Hawk worth more than $100 million. With a wingspan of 13 meters and weighing 12 tons, it looked more like a private jet than a drone. 
Just before four in the morning, the Iranians pulled the trigger and launched a missile skyward near Iran’s Jask naval base. The rocket had a range of up to 72 kilometers and could reach an altitude of 26 kilometers. Luckily for the missile, the drone could only reach up to 18 kilometers. Iran’s adversaries, the Americans, did not expect what came next. Their sophisticated and relatively rare drone was shot out of the sky, almost forcing US President Donald Trump to launch retaliatory air strikes. 
Iran has bragged about bagging the US drone. Its Press TV even put out a hunting list of other US drones they claim to have taken down. These include a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, captured in 2011 after being hacked, a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle captured in 2012 and other US drones. Iran is now becoming a drone innovator.
1,800 miles away from Jask, Israel is watching the challenges the US faces in the Gulf. In mid-June, military drills were carried out preparing for the possibility of a war in the north. The army, navy and air force all participated, according to the IDF. This comes amid tensions with Iran and the Syrian regime blaming Israel for air strikes in Syria. Ynet reported on May 13 that “on April 9, Israel bombed the T-4 Airbase in Syria; seven Iranians were killed in the attack.”
The article notes that an Iranian aerial defense system called the Third Khordad was “destroyed before even being unpacked.” It was the same system Iran used to take down the Global Hawk. T-4 airbase is also where Iran has its own drone warehouses. Satellite images released on June 4 showed another air strike on June 2. The images, from ImageSat International noted that the site struck was related to UAVs or drones.
WE ARE now in the era of drone wars. It sounds a bit like the Star Wars “clone wars” and perhaps it should, because the era of drones and air defense systems that combat them is something of the future. Except in this case, the future is here and now. For Israel, this is many decades in the making. In September 2016, Atelier magazine sat down with David Harari, a former head of Israel Aerospace Industries to talk about the origins of drone technology. 
“I’d like to make clear that unmanned aerial vehicles already existed before Israel started looking at the subject,” he said. However, “We developed the very first operation system.” This was important for Israel facing the threats of the 1970s and early 1980s, first in the Egyptian conflict of 1973 and then against terrorists in Lebanon. Harari told Globes in 2011 that when he began looking into UAVs, people laughed at him and his staff. One of Israel’s first drones was called Zahavan “Scout” and was used in the 1982 Lebanon War. At 22 kg., it could fly for several hours and its camera weighed 25 kg., Globes notes. “When we wanted to expand the capabilities of the next UAV, we had to build a new and bigger plane,” Harari said.
Israel did what it generally does best – to innovate using existing technology to solve a problem that Israel faces. In so doing, it built some of the first operational reconnaissance drones. Reconnaissance drones are important because it allows a military to see enemy operations and deployments without endangering the lives of soldiers. It can also help to monitor a situation as a battle unfolds.
DESIGNED FOR tactical missions on the battlefield, the T-Heron is expected to be used extensively by ground troops and coastal guards, as well as by other protection forces. (Credit: IAI)DESIGNED FOR tactical missions on the battlefield, the T-Heron is expected to be used extensively by ground troops and coastal guards, as well as by other protection forces. (Credit: IAI)
Israel’s drone pioneers not only built the IAI Scout, which was active in 1982 and after, they had also developed the Tadiran Mastiff in the 1970s. IAI and Tadiran would work together in the 1980s when the US took interest in Israeli drones. Eventually Israel’s innovations led to the development of the AAI RQ-2 Pioneer, which was introduced in 1986 and developed through American and Israeli cooperation between AAI and IAI’s Malat or “drone” division. These technological innovations would help the US in the 1991 Gulf War.
Drones wouldn’t find their full calling until 2001 when one of the first drone strikes would be carried out by the US General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. The innovations that led to the Predator also had Israeli origins in Abraham Kerem, an aeronautical engineer born in Iraq who moved to Israel as a teenager and eventually founded a company in the US. Using experience gained as a designed for the Israel Air Force, he designed Amber, a drone forerunner of the Predator.
If Israel was there at the beginning of the drone revolution, like the Wright brothers, it is also there at the cutting edge of the current wave of drone wars. The country became a “superpower” in UAVs. Globes said in 2011: “At a base in central Israel, an even more advanced UAV is in operation. It is the cutting edge in IDF unmanned vehicles, capable of reaching any place that the Israeli intelligence community might want to go. Even Iran.” That was eight years ago. Iran is thinking the same thing. In March 2019 it launched dozens of drones during an exercise titled “toward Jerusalem 1.” An Iranian drone even penetrated Israeli airspace in February 2018. In response, Israel struck the T-4 base the drone came from and other areas in Syria.
Israel has had to confront a variety of enemies and gather intelligence while keeping its own soldiers as safe as possible, and unmanned vehicles are often the best way to do that. Whether it is keeping watch on Hamas in Gaza or monitoring Hezbollah’s threats, UAVs are there. In addition, because Israel confronts innovative enemies, it must prepare for drone attacks. In general, Israel has faced the kinds of terror threats that usually mature and become threats to the rest of the region and the world, meaning that Israel’s drone technology is often placed ahead of the technology curve for militaries around the world.
TODAY’S ISRAEL drone industry was on display at the recent Paris Air Show. The show is the world’s largest air show where all the big players in the aerospace industry come to show off their goods. They had to fight for attention, since some 2,000 companies came. Autonomous air taxis were on display, as if someone wants not only a taxi without a driver, but one hurtling through the air, too. In the drone market, there were also many offerings, including Leonardo’s latest Falco drone.
For Israel, the show is one of many places to show off its advances in drone technology and pitch them to militaries and others around the world. Israel knows this. The Ministry of Economy and Industry created a brochure for investing in unmanned aerial vehicles and drones in 2018. It claims that there are 50 startups in Israel making 165 UAVs. Already in 2005, the industry had exported $1.5 billion and by 2013 was the world’s largest exporters. From 2005 to 2012 that jumped to another $4.6 billion in sales. Drones are big business.
Half of those drones go to Europe and a third to Asia. Around 10% of Israel’s defense exports are UAVs. Israel is also pioneering anti-drone technology. By the end of 2017, Israel’s defense exports totaled $9.2 billion of which UAVs constitute a portion. An article at Emerj argued that Israel’s leading role in exporting drones is because of the country’s long experience and also because “70% of the Air Force flying time” was done in UAVs, with over 100 types being flown.
Israel’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, known as SIBAT, publishes an annual directory that shows off Israel’s various defense innovations. It devotes 30 pages to UAVs, which it classifies as its own section, rather than putting them under aerospace, showing how much Israel cares about this category of defense tech. 
“As a world leader in the field of unmanned systems and robotics, Israeli-developed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are operated worldwide, along with avionics, mission payloads, training and support systems,” the booklet says. “Israel now offers unmanned systems for military, homeland security and civil use.” The booklet details various systems, such as its Orbiter line of “loitering munitions” built by Aeronautics. These are basically a drone that has a warhead built into it and destroys itself on impact.
Several of Israel’s new drones were shown off in Paris in June. Elbit System Hermes 45, a tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS) made its first appearance, the company said. “Hermes 45 offers a combination of extended range and duration with point launch and recover, to and from land and maritime platforms.” In Elbit’s lingo, this means it has enhanced intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities, known as ISTAR. It has a range of 200 km. and can operate via satellite communication with electro-optical and electronic warfare capabilities.
At 70 kg., it can fly up to 5.5 km. for 22 hours with a payload of 20 kg. The payload is all the gadgets it can carry, like its digital data-link, emergency parachute, or its electronic warfare systems and other technology. Shown launching from a kind of catapult, it is operated by two soldiers and when it lands it can be redeployed in 30 minutes. Elbit says it builds upon the Skylark, another reconnaissance drone that I’ve seen used by Israeli soldiers in training and in wartime. That drone, in its Skylark 3 configuration, weighs 40 kg. and can fly around for six hours at up to 15,000 ft. and range of 100 km.
IAI, which had pioneered the Scout drone so many decades ago, also unveiled a new drone at the Paris Air Show. The Tactical Heron, which they call the “youngest brother of the Heron family,” joins drones that have “hundreds of thousands of operation flight hours.” Designed for missions on the battlefield, the tactical Heron is supposed to be used by ground troops or coast guards, IAI says. To get a sense of the impact of these kinds of drones, Elbit says its Skylark is in use with 30 international customers, IAI’s UAS are operational with 50 customers. The new Heron can fly up to 7.3 km. with payloads of 180 kg.
A THIRD innovation from Israel on display in June was UVision’s Hero-400 multi-canister launcher. This basically allows several drones to be launched from multiple tubes on a vehicle or other platform. I drove down to UVision’s offices in early June. It was a hot day. In the industrial area near a small central Israeli town where it is located, parking was a bit difficult to find. I ambled into the office to wait to meet Shane Cohen, vice-president of marketing and sales. UVision, like so many similar small Israeli companies that have their eyes on the global market, is clean and state-of-the-art. In the lobby, a video plays on loop showing a man launch a sausage-shaped canister into the air. The canister spreads wings and becomes a drone. Later the drone will strike its target. The target in this case was a human dummy, and the drone destroyed the dummy.
In Paris, UVision showed off its canister launcher for its Hero-400EC long-range high-precision drone. UVision says it is a global pioneer in “loitering munitions,” which is the clinical word for what are called suicide drones or kamikaze drones. Cohen was excited about the upcoming Paris show at Le Bourget. UVision is at the cutting edge of the niche it fills with these loitering drones.
It has a whole line of drones, from its tiny Hero 20 that weighs just 1.8 kg. with a range of 10 km., and a flying time of 20 minutes to its Hero 1250, which can fly 200 km. and has a 30 kg. warhead. The Hero 20’s warhead is just a few hundred grams. Cohen says that the systems they are building are the next type of weapon for the future battlefield. It’s revolutionary the way artillery or tanks were once a game changer.
Loitering munitions are interesting because they are neither a missile nor a bomb. In the era where bombs are smarter and missiles are now “cruise missiles,” the actual difference between these kinds of weapons is becoming more narrow. Modern armies, especially Western ones, don’t drop bombs indiscriminately or fire massive salvos of missiles anymore. Everyone wants to be super precise. It’s not about blowing up a jeep, it’s about hitting the driver in the jeep and keeping the passengers alive to tell the tale.
That’s what these kinds of weapons are doing and the competition is about showing an army, even with a limited budget, that they get more bang and precision for the buck.
Cohen says his line of drones are the best of both worlds compared to a bomb or missile. 
“It has a camera, thermal electro optics, dual censors,” all sorts of the latest gadgets and tech. This is where Israel is most innovative, when it is putting add-ons onto weapon systems, like apps on a phone.
UVision’s design is unique with what it calls a cruciform, which means the weapon pops out of the cannister and its wings flip out in four directions. This means it can attack from various angles. This has always been a challenge for bombs, missiles and air forces. For instance, the Stuka dive bomber was particularly deadly because of how it dove on targets. Today’s urban battlefield has enemies crouching in concealed positions. How do you bomb or rocket them out? How do you protect soldiers who have to go into a street with enemy snipers hiding in buildings? Well, if you have the thermal sensors and you can find the enemy, then you can fly a drone through the window and eliminate the threat. The advantage for soldiers, especially special forces, is that they can carry these weapons in to a battle, release them and then follow them into take out an enemy.
DRONES ARE now becoming smaller and larger, until you will have large aircraft that are unmanned that can fly long distances or hover for days above a target. And there will be tiny little drones and unmanned helicopters that will eventually be the size of bats or maybe smaller, like in futuristic movies. Israel has managed to position itself among the most import and innovative countries in this sector. This means that Israeli technology will not only be outfitting militaries and homeland defense with drones, but also outfitting them with the technology to detect drones and guard against them. 
The future of war is already here. From ISIS to Iran, adversaries of the US and Israel were able to build drones and shoot them down. Nowadays, countries that are seeking to have an edge are increasingly turning to Israel.