Israeli Drone Aficionados in the Service of the Army

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An EHang Inc. E-184 drone is test-flown at the company's headquarters in Guangzhou, China, on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.
Illustrative photo: An EHang Inc. E-184 drone is test-flown at the company's headquarters in Guangzhou, China, on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Bloomberg

“I have a date today,” Naftuly Erenfeld wrote in a Facebook post on June 29, 2016. The picture underneath that classic sentence showed a bearded man wearing a large skullcap. He’s sitting behind the wheel of a car, eyes shut, a slight anticipatory smile on his face, and hugging a package, the yellowish wrapping paper still on. The Facebook group on which he posted – FRIL, the FPV (First Person View) Racing Israel League – leaves little guesswork: Erenfeld had ordered an assemble-yourself FPV drone in the mail from abroad.

Drone pilots have developed a reputation as geeks. When you look at videos produced by this extreme sport, or when you go onto the FRIL Facebook page, the definition of geek becomes more nuanced. “The feeling is like you’re sitting in a fighter pilot’s cockpit. You can reach speeds of up to 150 kilometers [93 miles] per hour or higher,” an aficionado from Tel Aviv named Uri, a welder by trade, told me.

More and more lately he has been pulled toward the new hobby of drone racing. “There are people who buy racing drones, but the real freaks assemble them themselves,” he said.

In stadium races there are tracks that have gates, flags and obstacles. People who are less competitive, or training, head out to open spaces, groves or abandoned buildings, outfitted with a racing drone topped with a camera, a battery good for three to four minutes, a remote control and goggles that simulate the experience of flying in an aircraft.

Safety first – the sites preach to the addicted and learners. Otherwise the operator and others nearby could be injured or even killed. The Civil Aviation Authority has published rules for drone operation: “Do not fly in residential neighborhoods, or near public buildings or groups of people. Maintain a distance of at least 250 meters [820 feet]. Do not fly above or near people.”

Facial recognition

For this very reason, Uri was shocked three weeks ago to discover on the FRIL site a video taken while breaking all the safety rules. As he put it, over the past six months “I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of videos. I’ve never seen such a video with the drone flying over people’s heads.” The clip was filmed by Erenfeld, and in the introduction he wrote: “There is authorization and a demand from the army and security emphasizing facial recognition – micro-drone.” That is, Erenfeld’s drone is operating at the request and service of the army.

Like most of the FRIL videos, this one begins with spectacular nature shots – olive groves, moderate mountain slopes, a narrow road and its branches winding among the groves. The drone flies along the road and approaches people. The camera catches the surprise when it speeds toward their faces. The Hebrew-language site quickly posted the video with a caption of its own: “Look at the documentation: a citizen’s micro-drone helps IDF fighters identify Arab rioters last Friday.”

Since July 2011, the residents of the West Bank Palestinian town of Kafr Qaddum have been demonstrating weekly, demanding that the direct road that leads from their village to Nablus be reopened. It wasn’t enough that their lands were stolen (public and private lands) for the settlements in the area, but in 2003 the army blocked the ancient road to them.

“By chance” it passes between the settlement of Kedumim and its new neighborhood. The army suppresses the demonstrations by any and all means: attack dogs, spraying stink water and firing on protesters and journalists. The protesters respond by burning tires and throwing rocks.

Has our army come to the point of enlisting civilians for detective work that endangers the lives of the Kafr Qaddum protesters? The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz in response to a query: “Operating drones in the area of Judea and Samaria must be coordinated with the IDF.”

'Come on and strengthen our country'

Let’s take a guess: A Palestinian from Kadum won’t receive a permit to fly a drone among Kedumim’s gardens. But the spokesman’s office also wrote: “As opposed to what was claimed, the operation of a drone [by Erenfeld on February 2] was not coordinated with the army in the area and forces did not approach the drone’s owner to receive the photos.” Still, the response continued: “A video that was published on the web was given to the forces, including photos of the disturbance.”

Visitors to the Israeli drone site didn’t protest this deviation from the safety rules for operating drones. The people who were angry were visitors to the American website Rotor Riot, which according to Uri is a pioneer in racing drones and posting the videos.

A day after Erenfeld posted his video, he wrote to the FRIL community. “Friends, there’s a stormy discussion on Rotor Riot about my video and some people think that the Palestinians are unfortunates . Come on and strengthen our country,” he wrote, calling on people to post reactions. “And I’m thinking of deleting the post. Don’t know if it helps or hurts.” The video has been deleted.

Uri says he figures that “if somebody flew a drone over people’s heads in Israel, everybody would protest loudly. At least on Facebook. But since they’re Palestinians, not people, nobody stands up and nobody is shocked.”

By the way, as in all drone videos, music is added for greater enjoyment. Before he knew about the video, my friend and Israeli music critic Noam Ben-Zeev confirmed that I wasn’t imagining things. The video’s musical segment was inspired by the cantata “Carmina Burana,” which he describes as “awful and disgusting,” by the composer Carl Orff, a darling of the Nazis.

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