Tech by VICE

Israel Gave Russia a Farming Drone and Now Everyone’s Pissed

Drone loan not condoned.

by Ben Sullivan
Nov 17 2016, 6:24pm

Image: Lima Pix/Flickr

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, or so the saying goes. And it probably should have applied to the following laborious and comical international incident concerning a drone and Israel, Russia, and the United States.

Uri Ariel, Israel's agriculture minister, decided to give a $51,000 agricultural research drone to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his recent visit to Israel's Volcani agricultural research institute. "What a pleasant gesture," you might be thinking, as the world creeps ever closer to an era where drone technology is used as international diplomatic currency.

But no. It turns out that the drone Medvedev took a liking to last week at Israel's agriculture center may have contained US-manufactured components, and it certainly wasn't Ariel's to give. Researchers at Volcani were reportedly very disgruntled by Ariel's autarchic decision—they claimed their entire research program had been compromised. Moreover, if the drone did indeed contain sensitive US-made technology, relations between the US, Israel, and Russia could be damaged. The Israeli government was worried, but Ariel's team said no wrong had been done.

"Despite clear instructions from the Defense Ministry that any transfer of unmanned vehicles to foreign countries requires an export license, Ariel didn't ask for one, and offered the drone to Medvedev on the spot," reported the Jerusalem Post.

"The Russian president gladly accepted the gift and sent two members of his delegation to collect the small helicopter and load it onto his plane."

It's about here in the story where we'll bring in a fourth state actor—Spain.

It turns out, this Israeli drone was actually manufactured by Alpha Unmanned Systems, according to the Jerusalem Post, a drone manufacturer based in Spain. The camera that Alpha Unmanned Systems had allegedly used on the drone was manufactured by US company Flir—famous for its infrared technologies. Did Alpha Unmanned Systems even have a license to use US-made Flir technology on a drone, which was then given to Israel, which subsequently ended up in Russian hands despite the Putin's existence on the short end of a NATO arms embargo?

Read more: Ryan Phillippe and 'Stranger Things' Kid Star in a Film Shot Entirely on a Drone

Today, we almost got an answer. A report in Haaretz said that the drone in fact did not contain any US technology, according to Sibat, the Defense Ministry division in Israel that controls military exports.

"However, all drone exports require Sibat approval, even if there is no U.S. technology in them, and Ariel never got clearance," said Haaretz.

A report a few hours later from Haaretz, though, cites an anonymous official in Jerusalem who's saying that US embassy diplomats are now asking for clarification about the drone, and want to ensure it doesn't contain any US technology.

The official said, "the "drone affair" has caused Israel significant diplomatic embarrassment with the Americans," according to Haaretz. Motherboard has contacted the US Consulate General in Jersualem but has yet to hear back. To be continued.

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