Into battle with robots

Unmanned systems are changing the nature of warfare and Israel is emerging as a world leader.

Soldiers from the SAMUR unit 521 (photo credit: COURTESY / IDF SPOKESPERSON' S UNIT)
Soldiers from the SAMUR unit 521
Fifteen minutes are all that Lt. Assaf Mazursky’s men need to zip open their backpacks, assemble the un- manned aerial vehicle (UAV), con- duct pre-flight checks and launch it into the skies over the Negev Desert with a bungee cord. High-resolution images are relayed to the mobile ground station seconds after the little bird stretches its wings and gains altitude.
The team members come from the Israel Defense Forces Artillery Corps’ Sky Rider Unit. Their tool of the trade is the Skylark, a close-range tactical drone designed by Elbit Systems for real-time intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations at the battalion level.
“The beauty lies in our ability to make the battle so much more efficient. It’s simply a force multiplier, providing a dimension that’s second to none in the IDF,” Mazursky, 22, tells The Jerusalem Report, his voice occasionally muffled by F-15 fighters screeching overhead. “It gives a battalion something it doesn’t have and the significance is immense.”
Exactly why and how the Artillery Corps became the spy in the sky for the IDF’s ground forces is a mystery. Sky Rider began as a company in Zik, a highly classified unit within the corps that operates the Hermes 450, a medium-size UAV for long endurance missions that can reportedly be armed with Hellfire missiles.
Skylark’s baptism of fire came in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when it played a relatively marginal role in close-support recon missions in support of the ground troops.
Three years later, it earned its stripes in Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, relaying vital intelligence and bolstering cooperation between the forces.
“It was in Cast Lead that we proved our abilities for the first time. The army saw that we have something truly substantial to offer. There was lots of intelligence gathering and target acquisition. It was insane,” Mazursky says.
But it was the surprise encounter of Israeli infantrymen with Hezbollah’s fortified strongholds, the so-called nature reserves, in 2006 that prompted the painstaking process of turning Sky Rider into an independent unit. A comprehensive IDF study of the 34day campaign highlighted the need to provide battalion and company commanders with immediate access to their own bird’seye view of the battlefield and eliminate their dependence on the air force’s drone squadrons.
Weighing in at 5.5 kilograms and with a two-meter wingspan, the toy-like Skylark, which has flown thousands of combat hours with NATO armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems to be the perfect tool for this purpose.
With a top speed of 65 kilometers an hour and a range of 10-15 km, it is completely autonomous.
Once launched, it flies by itself.
The payload consists of a state-of-the-art electro-optic daylight or an infra-red (thermal) night camera. All the operator needs to do is to point the camera at a designated target. Wherever it’s looking, the drone will follow.
On the day I met Mazursky and his soldiers, they were testing the Skylark Block 10, the newest version of what Elbit touts as a beyond-the-next hill drone for all contingencies.
In the event of an all-out war, Sky Rider’s soldiers would be deployed to join any IDF battalion and would provide instant intel on enemy troop and armor concentrations. But their skills are regarded as priceless in today’s Israel low-intensity conflicts. In Lebanon or Gaza, they can pinpoint the location of small antitank and rocket-firing squads, snipers and militants planting explosive charges, and guide artillery and attack helicopters to the targets. A virtually silent electric motor also makes the Skylark ideal for covert counterterror missions conducted by special forces.
“We cross-train with every battalion – infantry, armor, artillery and also special forces, and can join any force, anywhere, anytime, for any contingency,” Mazursky says with confidence. “Linking-up and flexibility are the key words in our profession.
We have to be able to accommodate our tactics to a host unit. We collect intelligence already at the staging area, accompany the forces during the attack, calibrate artillery fire, and acquire targets for all other fire- support elements.
Like all the other robots employed in the IDF, Skylark’s ultimate objective is saving soldiers’ lives. In the end, the army understands that robotics is the future, that this will win the next war.”
Robots, or unmanned systems as they are called in military jargon, are changing the nature of warfare. They currently perform dull, dirty and dangerous jobs like identifying and disarming roadside bombs, more commonly referred to as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), keeping human soldiers out of harm’s way.
NOWHERE IS this more evident than in SAMUR – a Hebrew acronym for “tunnels and arms caches” that also translates as weasel – the IDF’s elite Special Operations Engineering Unit, which was established in 2004 to tackle the growing challenge posed by Gaza militants’ underground tunnels and arms caches. SAMUR operators and a handful of select units employ Boston-based iRobot’s family of PackBots and Foster-Miller’s TALONs – machines fitted with cameras, laser pointers and other sensors – to inspect bunkers, buildings and open territory ahead of manned patrols and, if needed, destroy suspected IEDs planted by Hamas and others.
“There were many times when we handled unexploded ordnance that exploded on the robot, so lives were spared,” Capt. Ofek, an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) specialist at SAMUR, tells The Report during a recent visit to the unit’s base near Tel Aviv.
Remotely controlled by a soldier from a safe vantage point with a video game controller, the PackBot had previously seen extensive action in Iraq, and the US military still deploys thousands of units in Afghanistan.
The robot is so robust that it can be blown up and shot multiple times before it’s destroyed beyond repair.
Alongside PackBots, other robots are used to help minimize casualties in urban warfare. IDF special forces and crack infantry regularly use EyeDrive, developed by Israeli company ODF Optronics, to scan the inside of structures.
In the past, troops would shoot their way in.
Today, they throw in the 2.5 kg robot, which could easily be mistaken for a toy car.
Dozens of EyeDrives were reportedly deployed during Cast Lead. Equipped with five cameras that provide a panoramic view, the robot soldiers moved between rooms, searching for deadly trip wires and gunmen lurking in the shadows. The forces moved in knowing exactly what awaited them before entering structures and alleys.
Whether in the air, at sea or on land, robot numbers are increasing dramatically in modern militaries and are integrated in daily operations in the hottest war theaters across the globe. According to some estimates, one in 50 U.S. troops is a robot.
The state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which played a pivotal role in making Israel a powerhouse of UAV technology, is seeking to capitalize on unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), a niche still in its infancy that some observers predict holds the promise of vast fortunes.
“With UGVs, we are currently at the phase where pilotless aircraft were 20 years ago,” Isabelle Okashi, director of military robotics at IAI’s Lahav Division, tells The Report, citing industry analyses showing annual sales of $450-$500 million in the global market, a drop in the bucket compared to revenue from UAVs .
IAI’s foray into UGVs began eight years ago with the Guardium, a semi and fullyautonomous Tomcar off-road utility vehicle, which entered service in the IDF in 2008 and has since been patrolling the border fences with Gaza. Developed by G-NIUS, an IAIElbit joint venture, the robot’s radars and sensors enable sending it to scout a town for militants, take fire, then direct a counterstrike by relaying the coordinates.
Next came the Rex field-porter, a logistics robot that autonomously follows troops and is capable of carrying 250 kg of armaments and supplies, sporting an intelligence jacket, and even an injured man tied to a stretcher, and is currently being evaluated by potential clients abroad. The Lahav Division’s latest hi-tech gadget is SAHAR, an all-terrain remotely controlled Bobcat tractor designed for counter-IED route clearance missions, that is slated to be delivered to the IDF Engineering Corps. It is being co-developed with QinetiQ North America and the Defense Ministry’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development (MAFAT).
Okashi says the SAHAR could have prevented the death of Private Roi Alphi, a 19-year-old engineering corps soldier, who was killed during a land mine clearance training drill in the Golan Heights on May 21.
Okashi and her counterparts in the US robotics industry are working hard to prove the wonders embodied in their innovations.
Okashi says that conservatism is the primary barrier slowing down the UGV revolution, as militaries are reluctant to alter battlefield tactics and techniques, and devise new ones, to accommodate robots. The psychological aspect of “partial loss of control” by operating machines from afar and hefty price tags also weigh heavily on marketing efforts.
“We encounter skepticism. Buying a system that’s completely new isn’t obvious,” says Okashi, who immigrated to Israel from France at the age of 18 and holds a PhD in condensed matter physics from Tel Aviv University. “In order to understand that he wants it, the client has to understand what he can do with it,” she says. “He has to experience and feel it and build tactics accordingly.”
The consensus is that UGVs present engineers with a technical challenge far greater than UAVs, primarily for what is known as none-line-of-sight communications and navigability in unpredictable terrain. To overcome such issues, IAI recently introduced a micro hovercraft for the SAHAR that functions as a relay station and accompanies the vehicle along its route in the event the operator loses sight of it.
A world away from Israel’s shores, a secretive organization is turning sci-fi into reality.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on humanoids, autonomous robots packed with artificial intelligence that can think and make decisions on their own. This is fuelling paranoia among conspiracy theorists and others who envision a robot apocalypse, when machines will rule mankind. Amid the international debate on just how autonomous mankind should allow the machines to become, the IDF’s own plans for ground robotics in the coming years seem markedly modest.
Lt. Col. Leon Altarac, head of the Technological Directorate’s Robotic Systems Section, is leading projects that include developing next-generation, autonmous Guardium UGVs with new off-road capabilities, robots that map underground tunnels, and robotizing existing platforms.
“The direction we are heading towards is not to significantly alter the existing battlefield doctrines, but rather to bring the instruments and integrate them with minor changes,” Altarac tells The Report. “It is very hard for people in the field to accept the idea that a machine suddenly begins performing tasks that until yesterday were done by humans, and trusting it to do the job right.”
WHAT WILL the IDF’s ground robots look like in the coming decades and what will they do? It’s very hard to assess,” Altarac points out to The Report. “With all of the Israeli brain, and the muscle of MAFAT and the local industries, the Americans ultimately dictate the trends because they have the vast resources needed to invest in this area. They are already moving into a different phase – humanoids, which, despite seeming like an unrealistic idea, I can imagine in existence decades from now.”
In an interview with Jane’s International Defence Review in July, MAFAT chief Ophir Shoham, who is allocated an annual $210 million for R&D of unmanned systems for the entire military, said that efforts were being focused on developing systems to operate “in more dangerous situations” in the near future. He predicted that by 2020 UGVs will be deployed for specific missions including intelligence gathering, logistics, patrolling and breaching contested areas.
Israel is currently ranked second after the US in UGV development. Repeated attempts to coax Dr. Okashi to reveal what new products could be expected to roll out of IAI’s closely-guarded labs in the coming years hit a brick wall. “We have a very strong innovation group at Lahav,” she says. “We recently participated in a DARPA exhibition with MAFAT and Israeli universities, where we passed the initial phase of an international competition involving humanoids. What we saw there is that we’re nearing maturity in full autonomy in which a human isn’t even in the loop, though operationally we aren’t even there yet. We still don’t understand what more can be done with all the robotics.”
Okashi forecasts that the UGV revolution is nearer than many expect: “Some will tell you 20 years. I believe the breakthrough is much closer because I see the enthusiasm. We believe that this market will grow into billions in less than a decade, and we want to be at the forefront when that happens.”
Hours spent with Sky Rider’s soldiers at the Tze’elim ground forces training center attest however to how far off the day is when human soldiers will be absent from the battlefield.
While their backpacks contain a GPSguided drone programmed to return to base by itself when communication is lost and lands on an aircushion that automatically pops out and inflates as it stalls for landing, the soldiers are trained in classic infantry skills, including marksmanship, tactical patrolling, urban warfare, camouflaging and parachuting. Alongside proficiency in navigating with a map and compass, each soldier is required to be able to bear the mundane brunt of marching 50 kms hauling half his body weight.
Lt. Mazursky says direct contact with fighting forces on the ground is vital to success.
He recently took a batch of Sky Rider troops nearing completion of the 12-month course that certifies them as members of the unit to an urban warfare training facility, while another team flew the Skylark overhead and relayed information on mock targets.
“All of a sudden the troops understand just how much they don’t see anything that lies ahead. It’s important to hammer into them how important it is that we understand where the battalion is,” Mazursky says.
“We march, eat, wallow in sand and mud, sweat and fight with the battalion commander and his soldiers,” Lt. Mazursky relates. “This is the only way to understand what they really need during battle."