A Qatar Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner takes off during a display on the third day at the Farnborough
A Qatar Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner takes off during a display on the third day at the Farnborough International Airshow, in Farnborough, England, July 11, 2012. Photo by AP
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FARNBOROUGH - The Israeli defense industry and its flagship company, Israel Aerospace Industries, have produced a number of fabled combat aircraft, battle tanks, guided missile boats and thousands of electronic warfare gadgets over the years. Imagine then the surprise of visitors at the Farnborough International Air Show this week, west of London, when IAI's display at the show was dedicated to a tractor with the unlikely name of TaxiBot.

Of course, this is not just any tractor, but an advanced semi-robotic system designed to tow jet airliners of all sizes from the terminal building to the runway, in the process saving thousands of tons of jet-fuel and minimizing noise pollution around airports. Still, it is an intriguing choice for the largest defense company in Israel to put in its display window.

"Our innovation unit came up with the idea by adapting unique capabilities developed in the military to the civilian market," says Ron Braier, the TaxiBot program director. “We solved a problem that other companies had been looking to solve.”

The system, which is about to undergo operational tests with German airline Lufthansa at its main hub in Frankfurt, is partly based on robotics developed for the Guardium unmanned land-vehicle that patrols Israel's southern borders.

“Airliners spend an average of 18 minutes using their engines before they actually take-off, often much longer,” explains Moshe Ararat, head of business development for IAI's Lahav Division. “For a Boeing 747, that means using up a ton of jet-fuel that could be used in flight. What we have developed is a system that can transport the plane to the runway without starting its engines. It saves fuel, reduces noise and protects the engines from ingesting foreign objects on the taxiways."

To untrained eyes, the TaxiBot looks like any other tractor that pushes airliners away from the terminal building. But the robotic arm that grips the plane’s front undercarriage causes no structural fatigue and is operated by the pilot in the cockpit. IAI hopes to enter a whole new market of civilian airport management in which they’ve had no presence until now. This is a new direction for the corporation, though still part of its overall strategy to shift at least part of its export business (82 percent of IAI's revenues) to the civilian field, which currently accounts for only about a third of the company's operations.

The focus on new advanced civilian products is also the result of obstacles facing Israeli corporations in a marketplace where some of the biggest customers are countries without diplomatic relations with Israel, particularly the Arab Gulf states. That doesn’t mean that IAI's top executives, chairman Dov Baharav and CEO Yossi Weiss, who started the job only two weeks ago, don’t discuss military deals at the show, but those conversations are pushed to the background.

The special sensitivities of marketing Israeli weapons systems are easily discernible at Farnborough. There are two striking examples. One is the display of the Eurofighter Typhoon, the main combat jet of the British, German, Italian and Spanish air forces. Surrounding the plane, which proudly displays the flags of its customers, including Saudi Arabia, a wide array of missiles are spread to demonstrate its multiple capabilities. Among them is a tube simply identified as a "targeting pod.” What isn’t mentioned is that the pod, which allows the Eurofighter to attack from a great distance by day or night, is the Litening, designed in Israel by Rafael Systems.

Another example is that of French electronics giant Thales, presenting the Watchkeeper 450, an advanced unmanned airborne surveillance system ordered by the British army, soon to be in service over Afghanistan. There is a full-sized version of the drone and its control cabin on display, but no mention that this is actually the Israeli Hermes 450 designed by Elbit Systems.

Both companies, Elbit and Rafael of course have their own displays and booths for meetings at Farnborough, but they are content to downplay their involvement in some of the most successful products in the defense marketplace.

"We seek cooperation with defense companies in other countries exactly for this reason," says one of the executives. "Not everyone is comfortable buying Israeli weapons. This way we can continue to develop and manufacture, safeguarding Israel's technological advantage while providing work for thousands of employees and still making profits."