Will Robots Fight Israel's Future Wars?

A glimpse into the mechanical creatures that help Israel maintain its military might.

Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz
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An Israel Aerospace Industries Heron 1 UAV, on display at the Singapore Airshow, February, 2014.
An Israel Aerospace Industries Heron 1 UAV, on display at the Singapore Airshow, February, 2014.Credit: Bloomberg
Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz

Startup Nation is about more than the Internet of Things and cellular applications that can talk with the fridge. Just as advanced technology is changing the household, it’s also changing the battlefield. Some envision a day when robots will take over from all-too-vulnerable flesh and blood soldiers.

While that day hasn’t arrived, and the army is silent about what it’s using now, the robots are out there: Israel, outmanned on the ground, is becoming a global expert on unmanned vehicles for land, sea and air.

The first primitive unmanned flying machines took wing in the 1970s. Their function was to collect real-time intelligence, helping the grunts on the ground and strategists. Today’s unmanned vehicles are enormously smarter and more maneuverable.

More recent are robots handling bomb disposal and routine security missions. Not only soldiers but unmanned ground vehicles patrol Israel’s border with Gaza, scanning for signs of infiltration or bombs.

During Operation Cast Lead (late 2008 - early 2009), the Israel Defense Forces used dozens of small robots. They looked like nothing so much as remote-control toy cars. They would be sent into building before soldiers entered, to check for booby traps and other potential hazards.

One such product was the EyeBall, made by the Israeli company ODF Optronics. About the size of a softball, the doohickey had day and night cameras, and a mike as well. The idea was to toss it into a room and it would then map out (and listen to) the interior.

The snag was that if it rolled under a chair, that’s what it would map, which wasn’t quite the ticket. ODF, therefore, added wheels to the thing and created the EyeDrive, which solved that particular problem.

Another product in this category is the iRobot Explorer, which is being developed by an American company of that very name. Israelis know iRobot more for its robot vacuum cleaners, but its military gear is used by the American army.

The iRobot, armed with a battery of cameras and a mike, precedes ground forces, observing and collecting information. Some iRobots also have loudspeakers. This series includes bomb-disposal robots, some of which can even climb stairs.

Information is key to battles, as any veteran of the Yom Kippur War knows all too well.

No lunch break required

The Israeli army has long used robots in routine security missions. They can stay in the field. They don’t need lunch breaks. In short, the army’s goal is to replace grunts with gears as much as possible.

Not only will soldiers’ lives be spared, points out robotics expert Isabelle Okashi, of the Israel Aerospace Industries robotics division: Machines don’t get bored and don’t cavil at messy missions.

She believes that within five years, robots will be a routine part of the ground forces. She does not, however, buy “Terminator”-esque apocalyptic visions of wars being relegated to machine versus machine.

Israel’s circumstances and the quality of technology development have made it a world leader in unmanned vehicles. Companies like Rafael, Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems are at the cutting edge, and shape their solutions to Israel’s needs. The companies work closely with their “clients” over years, shaping product specifications and development of next-generation machines.

The IDF itself has a robotics systems division, which, among other things, does development of its own. Among its developments are operating systems for robots, some of which are based on none other than Microsoft Windows software. This division also handles safety testing before soldiers get to work with the robots.

Why no robot wars?

Yet use of robots isn’t as prevalent as one might think. And the reason isn’t technological. Okashi claims that it’s because people haven’t yet thought about warfare in a robotized world; there are no doctrines, no procedures.

“What I mean is, how you take the system and adapt it to military use. If the mission involves evacuating the wounded, for instance, one has to know how many vehicles can be used altogether, who calls for the first one, who in the unit takes command of the vehicle, who gives the order for the robot to start moving.”

Dan Bichman, marketing manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ UAV division, points out that drones took their sweet time to get accepted, with the first ones a very hard sell. But as time passed, militaries started to grasp the potential of small, unmanned aircraft and started to have new demands of them, too.

“You can see the evolution of UAVs,” says Bichman. “At first they could be remotely controlled, and the drone was more manual. As the generations of drones passed, automation became better, though a person is always involved in making decisions.”

Drones today span the range from mosquitoes weighing just a few kilos, to the five-ton Eitan. And today they’re so automated that the things get sent by clicking a mouse on a target, rather than using a joystick, as in the past.

Nor has Israel neglected the sea, though that’s the last arena for which UAVs were created. During the last couple of years, the Israeli navy has been using the Protector – a huge, 9.1-meter unmanned boat equipped with observation gear, day-night sight, and arms, too. The boat is controlled remotely, from a control room on land.

It was developed by Rafael, together with the navy, and doesn’t come cheap – each remote-control boat costs millions of shekels. They were first employed to investigate seaborne threats south of Ashdod. Vast as the things are, they can achieve a respectable speed of 30 knots (about 35 mph) and, aside from their state-of-the art technology and weapons, have loudspeakers to communicate with other boats at sea.

An unmanned Israeli vehicle in the Golan Heights, 2010.Credit: Roman Poretzki
A robot used by the IDF for observation and intelligence-gathering.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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