On a recent spring day, the sky above the Israeli coastal town of Hadera was filled with drones in what is considered to be a world first: a fleet of 20 small unmanned aircraft from five different companies crisscrossing the sky while being monitored in a control room some 56 kilometers away.
The trial was part of a pilot project to test the safe and efficient integration of drone deliveries in urban environments, and is expected to lead – in as little as two years – to the approval of commercial drones for the delivery of everything from prescription medicines and lab tests to pizzas and parcels. It may also establish Israel as a testing ground for drone companies worldwide and a global leader in the field.
Opportunity for the regulators to learn
The drone trial is part of a program launched by the Israel Innovation Authority to help high-tech companies conduct semi-commercial and pilot demonstrations of new technologies. Since the start of the program in 2018, the Authority has granted NIS 287 million (about $86 million) to some 200 companies, which are required to add $1.50 for every dollar received from the Authority.
The projects span a variety of fields, including aviation, agriculture, energy, the environment, transportation, telecommunications and healthcare – and are conducted in close cooperation with about a dozen government ministries. That's because the goal of the program is not only to test innovative technologies on a larger scale, but also to shape and adapt to the regulatory framework that will eventually oversee these technologies.
In the case of drones, for example, the path to commercial approval requires much more than a reliable delivery drone. The prospect of numerous drones flying low over urban areas raises concern about possible collisions and invasion of privacy. Regulations must be developed and enforced to prevent such scenarios.
“This is an opportunity for the regulators to learn what is needed to introduce delivery drones as a daily reality, and for the drone operators to learn what is expected of them,” says Daniella Partem, Head of the Israel Center for the 4th Industrial Revolution (C4IR) at the Israel Innovation Authority, which is backing the drone project, along with Ayalon Highways, the Transportation Ministry, Civil Aviation Authority of Israel and the Prime Minister's Office.
“Our goal is to be the first to test innovative technologies and also be the first to regulate them in such a way that they enable the market to evolve and be competitive,” says Sagi Dagan, VP and Head of Growth Division at the Innovation Authority.
Dagan notes that the drone project – in which multiple drones can fly in a single airspace – is characterized by an innovative system of regulation and management. “With airplanes, the regulation is from top down – the Aviation Authority determines flight paths. In contrast, in this project the drone company decides on its route and gets electronic approval from a central system within seconds,” he explains. The control room in Haifa utilizes software developed by Tel Aviv-based Airwayz Drones to ensure coordination and safety. “This is not just technological innovation but regulatory innovation,” stresses Dagan.
The pilot program will soon be open to international companies that want to conduct drone flights in Israel or cooperate with local drone companies. “This helps the international company understand how the system works and gives Israeli companies international partners – it's a win-win situation,” says Dagan.
The goal of the project is to have 300 flights a day by various firms in a designated area – first in unpopulated spaces over Hadera and later over other urban areas – by the end of the trial in 2023. “For the first time, we are managing airspace as a single entity, synthesizing drone operators with established civil and military aviation,” notes Partem.
Testing new healthcare technologies
The five companies involved in the drone project, which are receiving NIS 12 million in support from the Innovation Authority, make up just a small slice of its pilot program. The largest beneficiaries of the program are companies in the health sector – in which NIS 80 million has been allocated to 50 projects in the last three years. The pilots involve Israel's health maintenance organizations and several of its large hospitals including Rambam, Ichilov, Sheba and Beilinson as well as the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps and the Ministry of Health.
In one project, supported by the Authority's pilot program, robots perform triage in hospital emergency rooms. “You get to the ER and you are asked questions by a robot, which analyzes a huge amount of data, pooled from how those questions have been answered over the last decade in ERs. On that basis, we can tell whether we need to call a doctor immediately, and help the medical team make decisions,” Dagan elaborates, describing the project of the Tel Aviv-based company Diagnostic Robotics, which hopes to cut down on unnecessary emergency room visits and reduce the burden on physicians of performing routine tasks. Dagan clarifies that the “decision is made by a doctor, not a robot. But the robot helps get additional data and makes recommendations based on the data.”
In this project, too, the challenge is not only in the technology, but in the regulation. “How far do you go with the recommendation? Where is the balance between a physician and a machine? Those are some of the ethical or professional questions that boil down to regulation,” Dagan notes. “That is a key feature of the pilot program. By being tightly connected to the industry, through our program, the government ministries can create innovative and sophisticated regulation.”
Advancing environmental technology
About two dozen of the projects in the Innovation Authority's pilot program deal with the environment. One of the more concrete and advanced initiatives can be seen near the Tel Aviv University railway station where the Israeli company ElectReon has set up an electric road to power an electric bus.
The wireless charging mechanism has been laid under the asphalt of the road and will serve a shuttle bus that transports passengers, mainly students, back and forth between the train station and the Tel Aviv University campus about two kilometers away. The project – being conducted in partnership with the Dan Public Bus Company, the Tel Aviv Municipality, Ayalon Highway and the Ministry of Transportation – will be the first wireless electric road system in Israel. A trial run in March proved successful.
“If the pilot is successful, we will evaluate, together with the Ministry of Transportation, its expansion to additional locations in the city,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai promised following the start of the pilot project in September, adding: “Our strategic action plan to prepare for climate change has placed the fight against pollution at the top of the municipality's environmental agenda.”
“This project shows the complexity of environmental technology,” says Dagan. “Creating a battery is not enough. Creating an electric powered bus is not enough. Even creating an electrically charged road is not enough. In the end you need the acceptance of the municipality to change the lane, the capability of the infrastructure sector to build it, and acceptance of the public to walk into an electric bus charged by the road. In the pilot program, we take a new technology from the lab to the public – by obtaining the cooperation of multiple stakeholders.”
Boosting Israel’s chances of being first adopters
Another field in which the pilot program operates is in expanding the potential uses of 5G, the fifth generation of cellular networks, in Israel with five startups recently getting Innovation Authority grants toward this end. “The idea is to use 5G as a technology enabler in fields as varied as water, energy, agriculture and transportation,” says Dagan. Among the projects approved are ones that will set up 5G at Rambam Hospital in Haifa and at the Dead Sea Works.
Being the place where new technologies are tested – and regulated – helps boost Israel's chances of being the first adopters of those technologies. “Israel will either be the first adopter of a new technology or the last – there is no in-between when you are a small country,” explains Dagan. “Once a new technology starts to be adopted globally then the first markets for a company will always be the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and Japan, followed by other English-speaking countries. If we are not the first, we are likely to be among the last.”
In a step that may boost Israel's chances of being first, the pilot program has begun enabling some international companies or bodies to also conduct projects in Israel. Among the first: the Mayo Clinic, Hartford and Jeffersons and Berlin's Charité in a healthcare project in partnership with a number of Israeli startup companies.
Whether it's 5G, healthcare, transportation or the environment, all of the projects in the pilot program are meant to give Israel a global edge in adopting new technologies and setting the rules for using them. In the meantime, the Israeli public gets to enjoy the fruits of the newest technologies as they are integrated into roads, hospitals and drone flights.
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