As Civilian Market Booms, Drone Pioneer Israel Is Playing Catch Up

Defense firms have ignored the segment, but a host of startups are working on ways to make the technology safe, simple and affordable.

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Drones protecting Jerusalem's light rail.
Drones protecting Jerusalem's light rail. Credit: Bladeworx

Many residents of China would not bat an eye if told by acquaintances that they have placed an order with Amazon and are waiting for the drones to make a delivery to them at the distribution point near their home. That’s already a reality in China, but it also prompts the question as to whether drone delivery may also become a reality in Israel.

Theoretically it could happen almost immediately, but regulatory authorities are standing in the way. That’s probably a good thing, as the drone sector around the world is out of control, and regulatory agencies in Europe and the United States are trying to restore order. The drone market began figuratively taking off about five years ago and is doubling in size every year. The average drone costs between $200 and $1,000. The lightest drones used by the military weigh as little as 50 grams (less than 2 ounces), while the heaviest weigh 10 kilos (22 pounds) and are capable of carrying more than 2 kilos of cameras and other equipment.

The Israeli public’s primary familiarity with drones has come from attempts to fly them into Israeli airspace from Lebanon, but such military use is just one of many purposes to which drones can be put. What started as a toy has become a tool that can be used for deliveries and reconnaissance. In the future, emergency services could be required to have drones available in addition to their motor vehicles.

This week a number of drone startups exhibited their wares in Rishon Letzion at the annual unmanned systems and robotics expo organized by i-HLS, an Israeli homeland security firm.

“In China there are 1,000 drones, each delivering 500 packages a month to distance locations,” says Amit Regev, who about two years ago set up a company called Colugo, together with partners, on Moshav Bitzaron south of Tel Aviv. The company is developing a drone equipped with sensors and cameras that will be able to deliver mail, survey a disaster area, or for intelligence or agricultural purposes. The company is carrying out trial runs on the drone over wheat fields on the moshav.

“Our drone can take off and land vertically,” Regev notes. “When it’s bigger, we believe it will be possible to fly it out of the country – an aircraft for all intents and purposes. We have developed a unique concept involving wings that can switch angles, making precision gliding, takeoff and landing possible. The wings are attached to the body via a hinge and move freely. Our drone can fly for three hours, in contrast to competitors that fly for an hour.”

Israel has been a leader in the broader field of unmanned aerial vehicles, but has been asleep at the switch as the drone field developed. Civilian use of drones has been on the increase, but that has not been the focus of major defense firms. In addition, the price tag for a drone, in the tens of thousands of shekels, is small potatoes for Israeli defense firms that deal with products costing tens of millions of dollars and over.

“The field began to develop around the world because of cellular [technology],” Regev says. “They created lighter and smaller cellular batteries and that made it possible to build small aircraft. They developed a smartphone with a compass, GPS and monitoring device, and actually any smartphone can be turned into a little pilot. Therefore, private individuals can build drones. An American company developed an open code for drones and there are tens of thousands of people working on the code,” he said, referring to source codes that are open for use and modification by the public at large.

Pressure on the U.S. government by delivery companies to regulate drone delivery services is bound to yield results, Regev says. “The delivery time for a package in New York will be cut from 40 minutes to eight minutes and it uses clean electrical energy. In five seconds, the drone can deliver a life preserver to someone drowning while a lifeguard requires a number of minutes to reach him.” The U.S., Regev notes, has open spaces where flying drones is permitted, but it is banned over cities.

Israel lagging behind

Aero Sentinel, a Petah Tikva-based startup founded by Israel Vaserlauf, sees potential demand from the defense industry in the drone it has developed. The company, which employs about 30, is a subsidiary of Aero Sol Aeronautical Solutions, which Vaserlauf set up about a decade ago. “Three years ago, we identified the drone as a way of getting into the defense sector and set up the subsidiary to develop a military drone,” Vaserlauf explained.

The subsidiary hasn’t raised any capital and relies on the equity capital of its parent company.

“We didn’t think the trend would become a global craze but now there are drones everywhere, for deliveries, for oversight of smart cites, for agricultural and photography. Our whole lives will change because of drones. Currently, if the police need an aerial picture, they send up a helicopter at a cost of thousands of dollars an hour. An hour flying a drone costs in the tens of dollars. It’s already happening around the world but we in Israel are lagging behind,” he warns.

The savings in money and human resources, its ease of use and efficiency will make the drone a piece of equipment that every military unit has, he says. At any kind of military confrontation, it will be possible to quickly dispatch photography drones or even drones carrying explosives. An integrated system that includes a drone with expensive photography equipment, a ground-based control station, a communications system, spare parts and training on use of the system can run as high as $50,000. Over the past year, 10 such systems have been sold to buyers around the world, Vaserlauf says.

Began as selfie, turned into threat

ARTsys360, a company founded by three people including Meir Zorea in 2013, is attempting to tame the wild drone sector. The company is using patent rights obtained from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology to develop a small radar system that can identify drones. This startup, which is based in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, has a staff of eight and has raised over a million dollars, some of it from the Economy Ministry’s Office of the Chief Scientist and some from private investors in Israel and abroad.

The company’s product is in its advanced development stage and there are plans to present it to the market at the end of the year. The company has already received orders for the future product, which made the finals of a competition sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, facing off against about 250 companies from more than 60 countries.

What differentiates the radar system is its size and price. In the global marketplace, military radar systems can cost tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars, yet ARTSys360’s product won’t cost more than $10,000. It is capable of scanning a 360-degree area around itself without an antenna, as well as a 45-degree angle above and below the horizon.

“We are capable of identifying targets such as cars and people at a range of hundreds of meters, including drones. The radar scans the area, and when it identifies a change directs the camera to the location,” Zorea explains.

The drone sector has gotten out of control over the past year, he says. “They’re taking pictures of things that are not allowed; a drone can deliver a gun to a prison yard or serve as a bomb if loaded with explosives. The targets can be varied: power plants, nuclear reactors or parliament buildings. Most radar is designed in a way that it emits harmful radiation. Our radar meets urban standards,” Zorea boasts.

“We are entering an era in which drones will move merchandise, and at a more advanced stage, maybe people. For this vision to be realized, there needs to be a command and control system that will monitor air traffic and prevent collisions and crashes. There’s a need for an urban system that will manage drone traffic, and we are in talks with officials in Israel to provide the solution.

“The field is really going wild and has grown by 100% in a year,” Zorea says. “Everything began as an unimportant glider for children. The major break-though began when it was connected to cameras. A year and a half ago, drones began to be purchased and used to photograph from the air, for example, during skiing. It started as a selfie and now you can order a drone on eBay for a few hundred dollars, connect anything you want to it and become a threat. There have been more than 30 incidents in which drones have flown over nuclear reactors in France. Over the past year, there was a drone with radioactive material that came close to the Japanese prime minister, a drone that photographed the German chancellor and almost physically hit her, and two drones have landed on the White House grounds.”

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