Editor's Notes: The birth of the drone

The first flight took place on July 7, 1969 – 50 years ago next Sunday. The target was a row of Egyptian military positions located near Ismailia.

A REMOTE-CONTROLLED airplane is readied for its first flight over the Suez Canal in 1969, during which it took photographs of the Egyptian side of the waterway (inset) (photo credit: SHABTAI BRILL)
A REMOTE-CONTROLLED airplane is readied for its first flight over the Suez Canal in 1969, during which it took photographs of the Egyptian side of the waterway (inset)
(photo credit: SHABTAI BRILL)
It was less than a year after the Six Day War, and Israel was facing a challenge of strategic proportions. Having captured the Sinai Peninsula a year before, the IDF had finally settled along the new ceasefire line, immediately adjacent to the Suez Canal. The Israeli military was on one side; on the other was the Egyptian.
The problem was that the IDF had no way to know what Egypt was doing or whether it was preparing for a new war to try to take back the Sinai. Egypt had erected a 30-foot-high dirt barrier along its bank of the Suez, making it impossible for Israel to see if its enemy was amassing tanks, artillery cannons or soldiers.
As a result, one IDF officer designed a special platform to mount on tanks so intelligence officers could stand and peer across the Suez. That worked until an Egyptian sniper took a shot at one of them.
Next, the Israeli Air Force tried flying reconnaissance aircraft along the border to take pictures of what was happening on the ground. But because of Egyptian surface-to-air missiles, the aircraft had to fly at high altitudes on the Israeli side, rendering the pictures of little or no value.
That left the IDF with only one viable alternative: to send an Israeli spy to Egypt where he could make his way up to the Suez to take pictures of what was happening along the border.
Shabtai Brill will never forget the day that the agent returned to Israel and the film he brought was developed. An officer in Military Intelligence headquarters, Brill gathered around his commander in the department’s main nerve center in Tel Aviv to look at one of the photos the spy had taken. It showed a military bridge that Egypt had moved to less than a mile from the Suez Canal, which could potentially be used to move tanks and armored personnel carriers across the canal to invade Israel.
Brill stood there thinking how crazy it was that one single photo held the key to Israel’s survival.
“We need to launch such an operation to get a single photo of what is happening just over the canal?” Brill asked at the time. He could grasp the significance of the intelligence, but it just didn’t make sense that there wasn’t an easier way to see what was happening just a few hundred feet away.
On his drive home that evening, Brill couldn’t shake the feeling. He recalled a movie he had seen a few weeks earlier in Tel Aviv. The feature film had been preceded by a short newsreel about a Jewish boy in the US who received a toy airplane as a bar mitzvah gift. He remembered that the planes came in different colors, were wireless, and could be flown by remote control. What Brill conceived seemed almost too good to be true: buy a few remote-controlled airplanes, attach cameras underneath, and fly them over the Suez to follow the Egyptian military.
Within a few months he received approval from his superiors to buy three toy airplanes, six remote controls and five engines, as well as a few spare tires and propellers. The grand total was $850.
THE PROBLEM was that toy airplanes were not available in Israel, so a member of Israel’s defense delegation in New York went to a Manhattan toy store and bought the equipment. He then sent it to Israel in the embassy’s diplomatic pouch to avoid any unwanted questions about why an Israeli was traveling with so many toy airplanes.
After their safe arrival in Israel, the toys were fitted with 35-millimeter German-made cameras, with timers programmed to take pictures automatically every 10 seconds.
The first flight took place on July 7, 1969 – 50 years ago next Sunday. The target was a row of Egyptian military positions located near Ismailia, a town along the Suez and next to Lake Timsah, otherwise known as Crocodile Lake.
When the photographs came back, Brill was stunned. The resolution was amazing, and he could clearly see the trenches the Egyptians had built along the canal. Even communication cables connecting the different positions were visible.
For the first time, Israel had clear photos of the obstacles the Egyptians were building along the Suez and how they were preparing for a future war.
Sadly, though, the story did not have a good ending. A few weeks later, Brill was promoted and moved to a different position. While he believed his pet project would continue, other forces in the IDF were not as enthusiastic, and the project was eventually shut down.
Brill tried to push back, pleading with the IDF intelligence brass to keep the project alive. He warned of the devastating consequences if it was abandoned. No one was willing to listen.
On October 6, 1973, on Yom Kippur, the Egyptian military launched a surprise attack across the Suez and proceeded practically unopposed up through the Sinai Peninsula. While Israel ultimately held the territory, when the war ended the country was in a state of trauma. More than 2,000 soldiers had been killed, the most since Israel’s War of Independence.
“Had we continued taking pictures of what was happening just three miles over the canal, we would have seen the Egyptian tanks, bridges and equipment amassing and understood they were preparing for war,” Brill told me. “Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.”
Military intelligence realized its mistake, dusted off Brill’s old plans, and reached out to local defense companies to begin designing a lightweight unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), what today is more commonly referred to as a drone. It would take another few years for the Israeli design to become operational, but what Brill started in 1969 would soon turn Israel into a global drone superpower.
In today’s IDF, there is no operation that does not include the use of drones, in all different sizes and shapes. The smaller ones are used for company or battalion-level operations, while the bigger reconnaissance drones are used for intelligence collection or ongoing surveillance of borders and enemy territory.
Some 50% of all IAF flight hours, for example, are carried out by drones, and in 2018, Israel exported about $1 billion in drone technology.
That it all started with a toy airplane on the shores of the Suez Canal is a story of amazing ingenuity, innovation and determination. It is the story of Israel.
* * *
A STORY that should not be Israel’s is the cynical abuse of power we witnessed this past week in our political system.
Less than a month ago, on May 29, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – after failing to form a coalition – decided to dissolve the Knesset and for the first time in Israeli history, take the country to a second election within half a year. Seventy-four newly elected members of Knesset voted to fire themselves, all because Netanyahu refused to give President Reuven Rivlin the chance to tap another politician to try to form a government.
Now, almost a month later and with polls showing his Likud Party possibly not winning the September 17 election, Netanyahu wants to dissolve what has already been dissolved. Confused? Don’t be. Be embarrassed instead.
It is true that another election will cost Israel billions of shekels. It is also true that the government has been paralyzed since elections were called in December, and will continue to be paralyzed until a new government is formed – if one can be – sometime around November.
But you cannot simply play ping-pong with the country. Israel is not a ball you get to hit in any direction you want based on what is good for your political career.
Moreover, the whole way this was done stinks of cynicism. For the last week, there have been rumors of interest among some MKs to see if there is a way to cancel the law that was passed on May 29 to disperse the 21st Knesset. On Tuesday night, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein – one of the 74 MKs who voted to disperse last month – claimed to have found a path to undo what he himself did. Minutes later, Netanyahu put out a statement saying he was “seriously considering” Edelstein’s proposal, and would meet with him in the next few days to discuss it.
This was a planned rollout. Netanyahu, who orchestrated the dispersal in May, didn’t want to be seen as the one initiating its undoing. He knew he would be criticized. So he recruited Edelstein, who happily lent a hand.
The problem is that almost all legal authorities claim there is no legitimate path to undoing the dispersal. Once a Knesset has been dissolved, it cannot pass a new state budget. That is why the government is cutting budgets of ministries – without the ability to pass a new state budget, it cannot effectively curb the growing deficit. If a transitional Knesset cannot pass a new budget, then according to legal authorities, it most certainly cannot pass a new law canceling the election and reinstating itself.
This, though, seemed to mean nothing to Edelstein and Netanyahu. Their interest was in political survival; everything else fell to the side.
This is wrong. It is a cynical misuse of authority – which seems to have been, thankfully, stopped in its tracks. Israelis did not want this do-over election, but now that it will come, it is an opportunity to again ask what type of country we want for ourselves and our children. Seeing what has happened over the last month, it is clear what is at stake.