The Israeli Startup Putting Robots in the Battlefield

Yosi Wolf and Elad Levy's Roboteam is developing robots to help soldiers with tasks, but not with taking on terrorists.

The MTGR, Roboteam’s flagship bot.
Moti Milrod

The alleys by the thoroughfare Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv feature mainly grubby garages and metal shops, sweaty laborers and shattered cars awaiting repair or painting. It’s central Tel Aviv, but feels like an industrial zone. Yet in one of the unprepossessing hangars lurks a startup that says it’s going to change the way we wage war. It competes with some of the biggest arms makers in the country and its customers include the United States Army.

Operation Protective Edge in mid-2014 racked up casualties because of a new type of threat the Israel Defense Forces hadn’t been prepared for – the so-called terror tunnels. The Hamas people didn’t need sophisticated means to dig the things, but Israel did need advanced means to find the tunnels and decommission them.

Among the advanced means Israel could use is robots to crawl through the tunnels, once they’d been found, to explore them, map out the dangers, even eliminate threats and reduce the risk to Israeli fighters.

Indeed, last year some of the Israeli units had small robots to help them, but they were not widely employed. The startup Roboteam hopes to change that. 

Founded in 2009 and now with almost 80 employees, 60 in Israel and the rest in the U.S., Roboteam has already sold hundreds of robot units.

It bears noting that robots have been used in military contexts for decades, including in bomb removal. Roboteam’s aspiration is to break through from niches to the broad army, and put robots into use for far more general applications than bomb destruction.

Roboteam founders CEO Yosi Wolf and Elad Levy served together in the Israel Air Force. After service, Wolf studied physics and Levy took robotics engineering. Both worked at the electro-optics company ODF Optronics, which developed the iDrive, the robot the soldiers used in Operation Protective Edge. ODF also developed the EyeBall, a small device weighing just 2.5 kilograms and equipped with five cameras to provide a panoramic image, built so that soldiers can dangle or throw it on the ground in places inaccessible by wheels. 

In love with robotics

It was at ODF that the two fell in love with robotics, Wolf says. In 2009 they felt they were ready, decided that robotics would be the next big thing after the Internet, took their savings and founded Roboteam.

It too began in a garage – that of Levy’s grandmother. In the first year, sales reached hundreds of thousands of shekels; by 2014 the figure had reached tens of millions of dollars and the company is profitable. It recently made Deloitte’s Fast-50 list of the fastest growing technology companies of interest in Israel.

Robotics is coming late to the ground forces: Unmanned robots, drones, have been collecting intelligence from the air for years. Given the scope of ground forces around the world, Roboteam’s people see vast potential. The U.S. has some 40,000 ground troops alone.

Roboteam has several appropriate models, costing from tens of thousands of dollars to around $100,000. Its flagship model is the MTGR, which weighs 10-12 kilos and was designed to comply with U.S. standards – meaning it’s modular. For instance, a kit to detect poison gas or bioweapons could be installed as could a laser gun. The Probot, which the company sells to the U.S., looks like a tiny jeep and rolls obediently by its controller, who doesn’t have to order every movement it makes.

The latest wrinkle in warfare is asymmetric war against terrorism, says Wolf. “The enemy’s army isn’t threatening the West on open ground; terrorists are posing the threat in underground urban territories. That’s the situation in Chechnya, Gaza and Lebanon. It’s the same type of fighting everywhere.”

Using technology, Roboteam aims to change the rules of the game, no less, says Wolf. Robots should be used not as a niche for engineers on boutique missions, but throughout the army.

The enemy learned to contend with drones by operating underground and indoors, he says; locating that enemy indoors (and taking his bullet) can either be done by a soldier, or by a robot.

Can robots help with the present challenge of random knife attacks?

No. “Robots are suitable for handling suspicious objects, or entering a hazardous place first,” Wolf answers. “They certainly can’t fight a terrorist running with a knife.”

But they can be helpful as military forces undertake new missions. Roboteam products have been deployed in Paris, which may have spurred the inquires coming into the company from other European nations, including the U.K. and Belgium. The city of Boston also started using the company’s robots after the marathon murders in 2013.

The company isn’t run by grads of the Israeli army’s elite 8200 high-tech unit, but by ex-grunts, which keeps things real, says Wolf. “We treat robots like machines. They’re helpers for soldiers but not autonomous, and they will never be.”

Soldiers’ helpers

People expect robots to win wars, but that isn’t how it works. He drives home the point: The company isn’t making some real Robocop. It’s making tools to help the fighters. It works closely with soldiers in its design and development processes, because they know best what they need.

The company’s clients include the FBI, American border patrols using robots to locate drugs crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, the U.S. Air Force and of course the Israel Defense Forces; also the armies of Poland, Thailand, Singapore, Britain and Switzerland. Roboteam is also nurturing new clients in America, where its chief rival is iRobot, better known for its robot vacuum cleaners.

That said, this small company can only compete with the well-connected big boys through price. “When you tell the chief of staff ‘let’s equip the brigade with robotics,’ he’ll ask how much it will cost,” says Wolf, and claims the startup charges much less than big companies with their enormous overheads. If they charge $50 million for a project, Roboteam will charge a tenth of that, he claims.

How exactly? The cost of both the hardware and software have fallen, he says. A megapixel camera that used to cost $100 now costs $1, which matters if each robot has nine cameras. But the most important thing in robotic systems is the algorithm. One key issue that had to be solved was the communication between its operators and the robot when there is no direct line of sight.

Another characteristic of the new generation of robots is that they are user-friendly. It is easy to intuit how to use them, Wolf says. That’s a must if the robots are to be used by grunts under pressure in the field: They can’t all be taken on a two-month training course, he says. “In the future, you’ll click on a point on a map and the robot will go there.” 

The company already sells a pocket robot that is operated by android – managing it is like playing a smartphone game. Anybody in the army today could run the thing, he says.

The company also developed a remote control that rather resembles a ruggedized Sony Playstation control console. Roboteam also sells this console to other military industries, which use it with their products, for instance to operate drones.

Ultimately, the robots are supposed to save the client army a lot of money. “If we reduce the risk to our forces by even 3 percent, we have achieved a lot. Financially speaking, a dead soldier costs a lot more than a robot and a wounded soldier costs even more because of the heavy cost of rehab,” says Wolf.

Playing with the big boys

Roboteam stands out in the Israeli high-tech scene. On the one hand it’s a startup that is developing cutting-edge technology, involving hardware, software and mechanics. On the other hand, it’s playing in the field of very big boys that sell to very big customers governments and armies. And no – its workers don’t mostly hail from the military industries, as might have been expected, but from civilian companies like Texas Instruments and Applied Materials; their expertise is video compression, telecoms, software and mechanics.

It’s not easy for a startup in the world of military robotics. Armies don’t want to deal with a small firm that could disappear overnight and contracts are through tenders, which can mean fierce competition and low margins, says Wolf. Nor is the military industrial market an appropriate stamping ground for classic venture capital funds: They adore robotics but they’re not into huge industries and long wait times. And then there’s the stringent regulation.

In the absence of big wars that require large amounts of armaments, these days companies have to choose their niche carefully. Budgets are allocated to areas where soldiers are getting killed, and that isn’t on ships or planes so much, but in the casbah. Industry isn’t like software, where changes can be made overnight, says Wolf: “I can’t just sell robots anywhere at the drop of a hat.”

Actually, Roboteam doesn’t make its robots – it subcontracts out manufacturing to more than 100 other companies in the U.S. Production takes three to four months, including the process of ordering the materials. The company in Israel is responsible for product planning, developing and running the operation; Roboteam U.S.A. handles final sales. The company also sells robot maintenance services for robots already in the field.

Its dream is that robots expand from being used by boutique units to mainstream: “We didn’t create an industry for just the elite commandos,” Wolf says.