On a pleasant winter’s day last week, a group of onlookers gathered around a screen in the Lachish area. They watched as a picture was received from a tiny aircraft circling above them. The plane was being operated from the ground via a joystick and myriad buttons, and the video was updating in real time. When something of interest was found, the aircraft operator magnified the image to view the details clearly.
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After a few minutes, an airbag opened on the undercarriage of the plane, which landed softly at the place determined by its operator, among green hills and carpets of flowers.
Soldiers from the GOC Army Headquarters’ Technological Division and employees of Elbit – which developed the plane – left the open-sided canvas shelter and went to examine how the plane had withstood the landing. Another plane was assembled within a short time and took off a few minutes later on another mission. Artillery corps soldiers had been maneuvering in the area the whole time. In the future, these soldiers will be operating the tiny aircraft, which is called Sky Rider (not to be confused with the bigger and heavier Skylark UAV).
The Israel Defense Forces is currently in the final stages of testing the second generation of Sky Riders – a mini, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system intended to aid a battalion on the ground, providing it with aerial intelligence images in real time.
The Sky Rider weighs about 7 kilograms and is equipped with cameras that produce video images of the battlefield where the battalion is active. (You can see the plane in action here, in a Hebrew-language video on TheMarker.)
This is the only tool that provides forces in the field with such information. The IDF had already deployed several dozen first generation Sky Riders, and the new system is expected to become operational in about two months.
The tests are being carried out by Elbit Systems, the main contractor in the project – in which about NIS 200 million has been invested – in cooperation with the IDF.
“The battalion commander gets a tool that hadn’t existed for him before. He receives a video picture of the battalion’s area of interest, and this gives him a significant advantage over the enemy and a better understanding of the battlefield,” says Maj. Dudu Gabai, head of the Sky Rider brigade at GOC Army Headquarters. Gabai has been accompanying the development of the system and its tests in the field.
“The battalion commander’s eyes are on the ground,” says Gabai. When he is given an aerial view, he says, he is able to know what is going to happen and to prepare for it – there is great significance in knowing you are heading toward an ambush, an explosive device or a tunnel.
“Today a battalion doesn’t have any other solution,” Gabai adds. “The new system knows how to identify the threats and save human lives, and it prevents the battalion from entering into an undesirable situation.”
According to Gabai, the IDF is using UAVs in standard security zones – the south, north, West Bank and Gaza. Every month, the system carries out hundreds of flight hours for infantry, armored corps and engineering battalions. “Sky Rider is a key system in the use of the ground corps,” says Gabai.
Its uniqueness is in its ease of operation. “The system is modular and easily disassembled,” Gabai explains. “A fighter takes a pack on his back and goes into the field with the battalion. When he arrives at the area of interest, he takes off the pack and within 10 minutes he is able to get the plane up in the air and receive a picture. The UAV is accessible to the battalions’ forces and operates on its behalf. This gives an immediately available picture and the battalion isn’t dependent on any other unit.
“Compared to other unmanned systems in the IDF, Sky Rider is a system that is small enough and has characteristics that enable it to be carried and launched in the battlefield,” says Lt. Col. Ori Gonen, commander of a Sky Rider unit in the artillery corps, which is currently responsible for operating the system.
“Sky Rider gives the best quality UAV picture in the world,” adds Gabai. The plane is equipped with an optical camera and a thermal camera that provide quality pictures in daytime and nighttime conditions, as well as in difficult weather conditions of rain or cloud cover, thanks to its relatively low flight altitude.
In daylight, the camera – produced by the Israeli company Controp – is able to magnify the picture by a factor of up to 10. During flight the area is scanned and if targets are identified, they can be enlarged. For this the operator needs to know how to interpret what he is seeing.
One of the main improvements in the second generation UAV is an increase in bandwidth, which makes it possible to send a picture from a greater distance and of a higher quality. Another improvement is with continuity: The system identifies when a UAV's battery is running out and sends a replacement plane into the air, which continues the mission of the first plane and homes in on the target.
Another capability is optical tracking – a system that enables the UAV operator to define a specific point, including a moving target, for the plane to home in on and track automatically.
Once the development of the new Sky Rider is completed, the system will be transferred to the Sky Rider unit in the artillery corps. The soldiers are learning to assemble the plane, take it apart, launch it, bring it back down and fly it. They are also acquiring knowledge in the area of intelligence-gathering and are learning how to interpret the picture and video received from the plane.