Last week's Autonomous Unmanned Systems & Robotics conference (AUS&R) held near Tel Aviv was the place to be for anyone interested in — or perhaps a bit concerned about — the future of drones. The event featured products and services from dozens of companies from the aeronautics, imaging, and defense industries. Organized by i-HLS, an Israeli media brand specializing in homeland security, the conference marked 40 years of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) production in Israel.
Israel pioneered the modern use of UAVs, which are popularly known as drones, for intelligence gathering and target identification starting in the mid-1970s. The country remains one of the world's leading exporters of UAV systems. Drone technology and manufacturing is the fastest growing sector of the global aerospace industry — Israeli companies producing UAVs made over $4.5 billion dollars from foreign sales from 2005 to 2012.
But this arms show offered a different angle on drones: how to effectively seek and destroy them. This year's show featured a variety of technologies designed to identify and take out hostile UAVs. As drone technology continues to proliferate around the world, both among armies and private enthusiasts, the demand for counter-UAV systems has also rapidly increased. Recent incidents involving drones, including one at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport last month, have stressed that government buildings, airports, and other sites are at risk of UAV attacks, raising the need for products with counter-drone capabilities.
When you think about it, drones aren't really anything new; people mastered the power of flight over 100 years ago. What makes drones unique is that they make airpower accessible to the average Joe: a simple airplane costs tens of thousands of dollars, whereas a basic drone runs a tiny fraction of that. Drones are essentially cheap, disposable aircraft.
Tal Inbar, head of UAV research at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, told VICE News that the danger comes from the spread of drones "to every entity that has the money," and that "the technology is getting much more available and can do a lot of harm, not to [mention the possibilities] five to ten years from now."
Israel is no stranger to the threat posed by UAVs. Starting in 2004, drones built by Iran and flown by Hezbollah have crossed into Israel's airspace and gone well beyond its northern border. Hezbollah launched Iranian-made drones during its 34-day war with Israel in 2006, including some armed with explosives that were shot down by the Israeli Air Force. In 2012, Hezbollah flew an Iranian drone close to a nuclear facility outside of Dimona, located deep within Israel. The following year, Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank announced the arrest of a cell of Hamas operatives who were preparing to fly drones loaded with explosives from Hebron into Israeli territory.
Inbar said that the Shahed 129, an Iranian UAV that can carry guided anti-tank missiles, is one of the most urgent threats Israel faces today. Hezbollah could use this drone to strike at targets inside Israel from the skies over Lebanon.
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These threats call for systems that can deal with hostile UAVs. Developing this technology poses a great challenge for Israeli aerospace and defense companies. A small drone will have a small (and therefore hard-to-detect) radar and heat signature. Drones aren't truly "stealthy," but could be categorized as a low-rent stealth aircraft. It's difficult to create systems that can spot, track, and intercept a small UAV, Inbar explained, but "where the need meets the challenge, of course the industry will jump in."
In the main hall of the conference, Johnny Carni, vice president of marketing for the Israeli electro-optical manufacturer Controp, spoke about his company's new UAV identification system. The device, called Tornado, uses a spinning infrared (IR) camera that provides a panoramic view of the surrounding airspace from ground level. The camera is able to identify objects in the sky, from large aircraft to small drones of all kinds.
An IR camera for UAV detection has advantages over similar systems designed to use traditional radar. The camera can be deployed in urban environments where there would normally be too much ground clutter for a radar system to be effective. Ultimately, "combining all the technologies will be the best solution," Carnie remarked, "but also the most expensive solution."
Governments and military forces will be able to pay top dollar for that kind of technology, but Carni also sees potential for less-advanced and cheaper systems that can detect UAVs.
"The market is there for the low price, just for people to protect their house because they don't want their neighbor to fly around" using a drone, he said.
The Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is also involved in the counter-UAV game, having successfully tested its design of the Iron Dome missile defense system this summer against small UAVs flying at high and low altitudes. The company has also developed a mobile high-energy laser weapon system (HELWS) called Iron Beam, which is designed to destroy incoming rockets, mortars, and UAVs in mid-flight as well as to engage airborne targets at closer ranges. If Israel deploys Iron Beam sometime this year, as planned, it will become the first operational laser air-defense system. And Rafale isn't chasing a wild goose in the form of functional laser weapons: US aerospace giant Boeing just demonstrated a similar system a few weeks ago.
Israeli drones are advertised as having been "battle tested" and "combat proven," but many who oppose UAV technology on the battlefield have singled out Israel's drone use, criticizing the country for testing military equipment in real-world missions, notably in Gaza, despite their proliferation by not just Israel but also its opponents. Activists with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, staged a protest against Israeli drone companies at the Paris Air Show this past June.
Tal Inbar conceded that while protests against Israeli-made UAVs could harm international sales, they have not yet posed a threat to their bottom line.
"At the moment I don't see any direct impact on Israeli industries, but we have to keep it in mind," he said. "We have to keep a watchful eye on this issue and address it promptly."
As UAVs become cheaper to produce, the need for systems to defend against them will prove to be a boon for the industry. This is especially true in Israel, as the country's companies develop new ways to detect and destroy technology that they first developed 40 years ago.
Follow Daniel Tepper on Twitter: @daniel_tepper