This story originally ran on themedialine.org.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) are being used in conflicts all over the world, and military analysts say their use is only expected to increase. With the clear advantage of not needing pilots, who can be shot down or captured, sophisticated drones can perform many of the same tasks as manned aircraft.
“The Heron, made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) can carry several payloads at the same time -- it’s a multi-mission multi-payload UAV,” Dan Bichman, a consultant for IAI and a reserve pilot in the Israeli Airforce told The Media Line as he proudly showed off the large drone. “Once I’m in the air, I can carry simultaneously 4 or 5 different payloads, and I can conduct a mission using all of them at the same time which is very unique in the UAV world. Another advantage is that I can stay in the air for up to 50 hours.”
Bichman said the US, France and Germany are all using Israeli-made Herons in Afghanistan to fly spy missions. He said several other countries have bought the systems, but he refused to give details.
He was speaking at a recent UAV conference in this Tel Aviv suburb, where more than 1500 drone buyers and sellers came together. They came to watch live demonstrations, meet with manufacturers, and compare prices. There was a significant representation from Asia, especially China and Singapore, although both journalists and buyers refused to be interviewed.
“This is the first international conference in the world that shows in one place unmanned systems in the air, on the ground, and on water,” Arieh Egozi, the editor of the IhLS, Israel Homeland Security website and the conference organizer told The Media Line. “Israel is a superpower in unmanned systems. They started with unmanned aerial systems and they have been flying now for more than 40 years.”
IAI announced that its systems have accumulated more than one million operational flight hours.
He said that Israel, which is the leading manufacturer in the world of UAV systems, has a range of systems.
“Israel has developed some systems as small as a butterfly, and others, like the Heron TP, which has a wingspan of 37 meters, which is like a Boeing 737,” Egozi said.
He stood in front of a large vehicle called an Air Mule, currently under development.
“The job of this system is to bring water and ammunition to the front line, and to evacuate wounded soldiers,” he said. “In the Lebanon war (of 2006) a helicopter was shot down when it tried to rescue wounded soldiers. If you use unmanned systems you don’t endanger any pilots.”
These systems do not come cheap. Israel’s defense exports last year topped 10 billion dollars. Some of the larger drones cost several million dollars depending on what kind of cameras they are fitted with. At the Israeli booths offering systems for sale, former generals abound.
“We are a start-up company and we have developed a revolutionary vehicle called the Hovermast,” Gabi Shachor, a retired air force general and CEO of Skysapience told The Media Line. “It sits on a vehicle and with the push of a button the doors open and the Hovermast rises up to 50 meters. Within seconds you get real time video into your vehicle. Because it’s tethered to a vehicle by cable, it can stay up as long as you like – six hours or two days.”
He says the Israeli army has bought two systems for operational evaluations and his company are currently selling more, at about one million per system.
“If you buy a lot, I can give you a very good price,” he says laughing.
He says Israel sees the future of combat in UAVs.
“Israel is already leading in this area and UAV’s will do more and more of what is done today by manned platforms,” he said. “There’s no risk, since there’s no pilot. You can stay airborne for a long time. A pilot can’t stay up that long.”
Looking around the conference hall, there were very few women in evidence. Ofra Bechor, a field application engineer for Green Hills software, a US company which has a branch in Israel, says the UAV field is dominated by men.
“Software and defense are fields that have a lot of men,” she told The Media Line. “I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m a woman but I have been ignored when there are men around.”