Israeli Drone Helps Brazil Catch Fugitive Drug Lord

The willingness of Israeli companies to share their technology has established IAI and Elbit as leading suppliers of unmanned aerial vehicles to Brazil.

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An Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron (Machatz-1) drone is pictured at the Singapore Airshow, February 14, 2012.
An Israeli Aerospace Industries Heron drone.Credit: Reuters

Israeli technology helped Brazil track down a wanted drug gang leader in the lead-up to the World Cup, Bloomberg News reports.

Arrested on March 26, the drug king known as "Little P" was tracked for over a month by police using a Heron drone outfitted with a heat-sensing camera. Supplied by Israel Aerospace Industries, the drone enabled police to monitor the suspect day and night, including when he was out of view and earshot.

Little P became a key target for police as he expanded his control of Mare, one of Rio de Janeiro's largest favelas, or slums. In the days leading up to his arrest and the occupation that followed, 16 people were killed in Mare, according to a report by Rio’s state security secretary.

Adriano Barbosa, the chief of the federal police’s intelligence division, said the use of drones may have prevented the loss of more lives. “Instead of having to send police into the favela, you’re using drones in controlled airspace,” he said. “It reduces the risks.”

The arrest of Little P was only one of many success stories for Israeli defense technology in Brazil, a country with more than 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) of borders and one of the fastest-growing defense budgets in the world.

As Brazil turns to unmanned aircraft for everything from border surveillance to crop inspection and crowd monitoring at World Cup games, IAI, Elbit Systems and other Israeli companies are regularly winning Brazilian government contracts in the face of larger global competitors.

One reason for that success is the willingness of the Israeli companies to share their drone technology. “Brazil wants to build its own defense industrial base, and rather than do all the R&D themselves, they like to partner up,” said Michael Blades, an analyst at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

“Israel has been very strong, and from what I understand more willing to transfer some of the technology.”

Elbit’s local subsidiary AEL Sistemas, a maker of avionics systems, formed a joint venture with Brazilian jetmaker Embraer SA (EMBR3) in 2011 to focus solely on drone production.

“It’s not just for events like the World Cup; these things are needed for day-to-day things as well,” said Vitor Neves, vice-president of operations at AEL Sistemas in Porto Alegre. “Public security secretaries are looking for more and more solutions.”

IAI is negotiating its second investment in a Brazilian company in order to compete for more government contracts, said Henrique Gomes, chief executive officer of IAI’s Brazilian unit. “The idea is to have a Brazilian-made drone soon,” Gomes said in a May.

Israel is reportedly the world's largest exporter of drones, with $4.62 billion of sales between 2005 and 2012 – almost 10 percent of its defense export industry in the period, according to a March 2013 report by Frost & Sullivan. Globally, the drone industry will reach $72 billion by 2020, according to Blades.

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