The IDF Artillery Corps’ Sky Rider drone unit will receive a new version of the popular Skylark drone, allowing a new command troop to operate deep behind enemy lines.“It’s the air force of the ground forces,” said unit commander Lt.-Col. Reut Retig-Weiss on Monday. “It is small, like a bird. The enemy doesn’t know where or what it is.”Dubbed Block 3, the latest version of the drone is expected to be operational in the coming months and will allow the troops to collect intelligence at a greater distance and with higher resolution and three-dimensional aerial pictures as well as aid special ground maneuvering missions by its ability to direct fire.The new drone will also have a camera able to operate in both day and night conditions, unlike the camera in the current version of the Skylark, which must be changed according to the time of day.
The Skylark, built by Elbit Systems and operated by the artillery corps, is the IDF’s smallest drone, measuring in at under 2.3 meters and operates on all fronts for tactical surveillance. It can be put together in under 15 minutes and launched by one or two soldiers who operate it on the roof of buildings or in the back of armored personnel carriers, providing live video to operators once airborne.Lt.-Col. Retig-Weiss took command of the Sky Rider unit in July, becoming the second Israeli woman ever to be appointed commander of a combat unit after Lt.-Colonel Oshrat Bacher was appointed the commander of the Southern Command’s combat intelligence-gathering battalion in 2014.“I have received an opportunity equal among my peers and like to believe I’m here because of my abilities. The performance of female soldiers is measured by the same yardstick as their male counterparts. There are no breaks to be had and everyone is afforded an equal opportunity,” Weiss said on Monday. While the unit has both female and male soldiers, it is segregated, with two all-female teams who carry out missions where they are able to transport the drone and its equipment (which can weigh some 60 kilos) in vehicles.“The female soldiers participate in every aspect of the fighting. They take an equal part in operational activities and are capable of crossing enemy lines,” Retig-Weiss said, adding that the first female company commander will be arriving to the unit in the coming months.The unit, which was established in 2010, is considered one of the artillery corps’ most prestigious special units. The Skylark is considered an effective and popular drone, with troops spread throughout the country clocking 3,500 flight hours in 2016. Between the first half of 2016 and the first half of 2017, the Sky Rider unit saw an uptick of 1,000 operational flight hours.Teams from the unit are assigned to other ground force units and operate the drones to provide tactical support and provide intelligence to company commanders and even brigade commanders.New specialized drone teams for brigade commanders are also currently being set up with larger drones that weigh up to six times as much as the current Skylark model.Teams from the unit participated in Operation Pillar of Defense as well as Operation Protective Edge, flying close to 6,000 hours and receiving a citation from the head of the Southern Command for their work during the last war with Hamas in Gaza. There has also been a significant increase of the unit’s operational activity on all borders.The unit recently participated in a large commando forces drill held in Cyprus this summer, developing new abilities for the Skylark to direct fire and hone in on targets more effectively.Footage released by the army on Monday showed images from an operation in 2017 over southern Syria to help direct artillery fire toward a Syrian army position as retaliation for a mortar shell that struck the Israeli Golan Heights. Another video showed an operation on the border with the Gaza Strip in December in which troops were looking for a Palestinian who had crossed into Israel. The troops were guided to the individual by the operators of the Skylark, as they had been unable to find the man in the dark.However, there have been several crashes since it was delivered to the ground forces in 2010 – with five incidents occurring in 2017.According to Lt.-Col. Retig-Weiss, most of the crashes are due to technical faults.“We add about a thousand flying hours almost every year,” she said, adding that for the amount of flight time, the number of crashes is relatively small.“Skylarks crash many times because they are a simple, relatively cheap platform, without backup. We investigate every crash in depth, learn lessons from them and make decisions in order to reduce the number of crashes,” she added.
Israel"s Skywriter drone system in use in the field. (Credit: IDF Spokesperson"s Unit)