The soldiers behind the robots

The only maintenance center for military robots in the country created its training courses and guides from scratch.

iRobot 370 (photo credit: YAAKOV LAPPIN)
iRobot 370
(photo credit: YAAKOV LAPPIN)
In between Ashdod and Ashkelon sits a busy, large lab, filled with computer screens, sensitive electronic equipment, and a robot which looks surprisingly like Johnny 5 from the 1986 hit movie Short Circuit.
One could be forgiven for thinking this was an Intel or IBM research center, but it is in fact the IDF’s Electronics Department. The center serves as a “hospital” where broken robots used by elite IDF units in counter-terrorism missions are sent to be repaired and returned to the front lines as soon as possible, and all at a fraction of the price it would normally cost.
Staff Sergeant Majors Roee Aberlani and Sergey Zaft would probably be high-flying hi-tech engineers in the private sector, but both have chosen to place their advanced skills in the service of the IDF to maintain the robots.
“We signed up as professional soldiers. I studied engineering. We’re here because of patriotism, and also because of this place, the positive atmosphere that is here,” Aberlani said.
Zaft nodded in approval of his colleague’s comments. “It’s fun to be here,” Zaft said, before thanking his superior, CWO Ilanit Finkelshtain, commander of the Electronics Department, who, with an embarrassed smile, promptly asked her soldiers to stop praising her.
Special army forces use two kinds of game-changing, US-made robots: The iRobot and the Foster. They carry out a range of functions which allow soldiers to reduce their exposure to life-threatening situations.
“This is about saving lives,” said Aberlani.
The iRobot can, for instance, be thrown through a window into a booby-trapped building filled with terrorists. It can move around a room and send visual data back to soldiers. Operated through remote control – which uses a secret radio frequency – it can also ascend a staircase, travel through water, and employ nightvision cameras.
“This robot can film tunnels used by terrorists, and send the pictures back to a mobile control center,” Zaft said, standing next to the machine, which has two bright lights next to its camera eyes.
“Its camera arm rotates 360 degrees for a panoramic view. The robot goes into a suspect building instead of the soldier,” he added.
The Foster robot is used to deal with explosive devices, and has been relied upon by US forces in Iraq to make safe a range of devices.
Often enough, the robots sustain damage in the field and require repair.
“We’re the only maintenance center for military robots in the country,” Aberlani pointed out. “We created our own training courses and maintenance guides without any prior knowledge.”
In 2006, when the Foster robot was introduced into the army, it came with a set of written operational instructions, but not much more than that. But today, the lab can fully service the robot, and replace parts without purchasing new spares from the manufacturer in the US.
So how did the talented engineers figure it all out? By reverse engineering the machines, of course.
“We had gaps in our information when we got here. We had to just take one of the robots, pull it apart, and put it together again,” Aberlani explained.
Through reverse engineering, the technicians were able to create their own spare parts, saving the IDF tens of thousands of shekels on each repair.
In 2007, when the iRobot came into service, staff traveled to Boston to the manufacturing site to observe technicians and learn how to repair the machines on their own.
The IDF technicians use intrinsically Israeli improvisation on a broad range of advanced electronic equipment as well. Motherboards are repaired here, instead of being ordered from abroad, saving the IDF NIS 5,000 to NIS 6,000 each time.
Tank computers are also upgraded rather than replaced, with old panels removed, modernized, and placed back into the system that acts as the tank’s “brain,” controlling shell firing, targeting, and movement.
Even covers for night vision cameras, which cost NIS 300 to order, have been replaced with locally produced covers that cost 10 agorot to make. That particular innovation has saved the army NIS 50,000 so far.
The robotics lab isn’t very far from the Gaza Strip, a fact that “allows” the technicians on occasion to experience some front-line situations.
The center is in the range of Hamas rocket attacks, and has developed a system to quickly evacuate staff and protect sensitive equipment when the Color Red rocket siren goes off.
“We have 90 seconds to get out,” said CWO David Abargil, head of monitoring of shooting systems. One minute the staff could be working quietly on a robot, the next minute, they must place the machines in ballistic- proof suitcases specially designed to protect the machines from rockets, and run toward an alternative underground lab, where the work continues.
Staff at the lab proudly display a Presidential Award they won for leading the way in creative thinking within the military. The award was won after staff opened a workshop to teach soldiers from other units to employ creative problem-solving tools and to think outside the box.
The robotics lab is just one part of the Electronics Department center, which also maintains vital sensors on the border fence with Gaza, missile sensors, and thermal imaging equipment.
On the floor above the robotics lab, soldiers are at work repairing high-resolution binoculars and gun sights.
The behind-the-scenes knowhow and dedication allow the IDF to maintain its technological advantage over Israel’s enemies, and at an affordable price.