Tiny Startup Beats the Giants for Israeli Army Drone Contract

Calling itself a ‘boutique workshop,’ CopterPix Pro has just 20 staff

FILE Photo: An Israeli soldier carries a drone during a large military exercise at the Shizafon Armored Corps Training Base in the Arava desert, north of Eilat.
AP

When the Israel Defense Forces asked for a bid to supply observation drones for its infantry units, it was one of the usual suspects that were expected to win it. Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael are Israel’s biggest defense companies and routinely win IDF tenders. If they didn’t get the contract then Yuneec, the local importers of Chinese drones, was expected to get it.

Instead, a tiny, relatively unknown startup called CopterPix Pro based in Kibbutz Karmia on the Gaza border won in a joint bid with the Israeli computer company Malam-Team. CopterPix Pro, which describes itself as a “boutique workshop,” was formed in 2013 and has just 20 employees. Its financing comprises $2 million from the Israel Innovation Authority.

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CEO Alon Svirsky said it plans to begin selling overseas only next year. The fact that the IDF will be using made-in-Israel drones marks a change in policy. Infantry units have been using drones as “flying binoculars” that enable commanders to see around buildings or to the other side of hills, explained a source involved in IDF drones who asked not to be identified.

“In addition, we have developed capabilities that include analysis and understanding of the characteristics of the enemy and the terrain that helps the fighters to construct a picture of the situation,” he said. Infantry and some armored units count scores of drone specialists in the battlefield

Despite their critical role in Israel’s national security, the drones the IDF has been using until now are simple ones designed for the civilian market and made by China’s DJI. Those include DJI’s Phantom 3 and Mavic Pro models, the same kind you can buy on Amazon that are used by hobbyists in parks and on beaches.

But security concerns gave the IDF pause to reconsider. In August 2017, the U.S. Army barred drones made by DJI out of concerns over “cyber vulnerabilities” in the products. The ban is in line with broader American concerns that Chinese tech, like that made by DJI, the world’s largest maker of drones, could be used as a backdoor for espionage.

Separately, Israel cybersecurity company Check Point Software last year exposed security problems in DJI drones that theoretically could enable a hacker in certain cases to access data in real time from a drone and see the images it is sending.

“The army used them as a temporary off-the-shelf solution, but their use was extended because it took the army time to define its needs,” said the army source, adding that the IDF was always aware of the risk and took that into account when it deployed them.

“We build a wide range of drones, from models that weigh 250 grams and can stay half an hour in the air and can carry out day and night patrol missions to those weighing 40 kilograms and can carry 11 kilograms of equipment for 44 minutes,” said Svirsky.

The company builds its drones from components made by other companies for civilian use, including the flight computers, and incorporates its software and other technology developed in-house. Svirsky and much of the CopterPix Pro teams are Israeli Air Force veterans.

In any case, the story of the drone tender isn’t entirely over. A source close to the process said the bidding that CopterPix Pro won is for developing systems and capabilities, not for the physical drones themselves. That contract is to be decided in a second tender the Defense Ministry published several weeks ago.

The army wouldn’t confirm the details and details of the new tender are classified.