Israel’s journey to becoming the pioneer in the field of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and the largest exporter of drones, and the major role played by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in it, are proof of the fact that adversity can bring the best in not just people but nations.
When a combined attack of the Egyptian and Syrian armies in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 surprised Israel, the country’s intelligence decided to enhance its intelligence capabilities. In early 1975, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) stepped in the picture after the Israel Defense Force (IDF) wanted ‘an eye in the sky’, a sensor that would be able to see ‘over the hill’, or ‘beyond the line of sight’, providing precise information in real-time.
With a few months, IAI was ready with the technology demonstrator. In 1976, Scout, a ‘Small Tactical Remotely Piloted Vehicle’ (RPV) that could provide tactical, real-time intelligence collection and operate at least for 50 hours, or 10 missions, few for the first time, giving an edge to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) over other militaries.
From developing Scout, to becoming the leader in the field of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with a growing list of satisfied customers all over the globe, Israel and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) have come a long way in the last four decades.
Israel’s present and future UAS solutions are focused on systems of systems, rather than the specific platforms developed in the early days. Current day platforms employ a high degree of automation and flight safety, carrying multiple sensors and fulfilling complex missions with high level of autonomy. Intelligence Collections, Terrain Dominance or Maritime Surveillance missions are often performed with an integrated array of sensors, including radar, Electro-Optical (EO) and Electronic and Communications Intelligence and Surveillance.
Providing a Safety Net
Three years after its inaugural flight in 1976, the new Scout unit participated for the first time in a large-scale exercise, simulating operations in South Lebanon. Its first combat experience came two years later, during Operation ‘Marathon Run’ in South Lebanon by 1981. The IDF was overwhelmed with the results provided by the new Small Tactical-RPVs, “an unprecedented, life-saving capability that provides our forces with the information to prepare and preempt the activities of opposing forces” declared the operation’s debriefs.
A year later, in 1982, the Scout RPV flew again over South Lebanon, this time in support of IDF ground and air operations as part of Operation “Peace for Galilee”. In this operation, the IDF conducted an unprecedented campaign against the Syrian air defense missile system deployed in Lebanon. The Scout provided the IAF with a critical real-time view of both threats and targets, enabling its fighter jets to engage targets from standoff ranges well beyond the pilot’s line of sight.
Evoking Global Interest
The impressive performance of the Scout and the edge it gave the IDF raised interest in the US and resulted in extensive cooperation between Israel and Washington. This resulted in Pioneer, an enhanced ‘Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ version of the Scout made exclusively of corrosion free composites, which was designed specifically for US Navy and Marine Corps. With Israel and the US stepping up their use of UAVs, interest among militaries around the world began to spike. This resulted in UAV sales to a number of customers in Europe and Asia.
IAI’s advanced capabilities in the field enabled it to address the demands of customers that sought unique designs to fit specific needs. An example is the Ranger, a system tailored specifically for the Swiss that sought a UAV capable operating from ice, snow or grass-covered landing strips.
The Advent of the Searcher and Heron
In late 1988, IAI responded to the Defense Department’s request for an improved version for the Israeli system by coming up with Searcher. The second-generation UAV was delivered to the IDF in 1992 and gradually replaced the Scout in Israeli service.
The drone received an enthusiastic market reaction in other regions as well, particularly in Asia. The 1987 cancellation of ‘Lavi’, IAI’s development program that sought to produce hundreds of locally designed jet fighters for the Israel Air Force, resulted in the company focusing even more on unmanned systems. This resulted in the development of an unmanned aerial system dubbed ‘Big Bird.’ Four years after the program won the support of IAI management in 1989, the first such aircraft – known as ‘Heron’ – was ready for flight test. In 1994, Heron took part in the first combat mission over South Lebanon, not as a military-designed drone, but as an ‘outsourced’ asset, directly supporting IDF Northern Command.
New Generation of UAVs
Heron, superior to previous versions of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) as it was quieter, was able to carry heavier payloads, and could support missions extending over days and nights, won export orders from traditional customers already operating the Searchers as well as from new clients and operators. In 2007, the IDF acquired Heron for its unmanned squadrons. The UAS proved highly reliable in combat missions supporting coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in operations by the Canadian, French, Australian and German Forces. Heron UAVs are currently in operational service worldwide with more than 20 users.
Heron became the first UAV offering complete maritime mission integration. Carrying mission payloads comprising radar, Electronic Support Measures (ESM), Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and Electro- Optical (EO) payloads, Heron can take off from land bases and join naval task forces or patrols hundreds of kilometers offshore, using a satellite datalink. Once overhead, the supported vessel takes control over the drone, operating it as part of its mission. At the end of the mission, shore-based control can again take over to bring the Heron back to land.
A Step Up in Capability
Realizing the potential of the Heron in Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) missions, the IAF asked IAI to come up with an UAS that would be able to fly higher, in stronger winds and gusts, and carry larger and heavier payloads on longer and extended missions. Development of the turboprop-powered Heron (Heron TP), began in 2004. The first flight of a proto- type took place in 2006. Four years later, Heron TP entered service with the IAF, becoming the largest unmanned aerial system operated by the IDF.
Smaller UAV Platforms
IAI has also introduced smaller platforms, configured as ‘tactical UAVs’, designed to operate with and support divisions and combat brigades. Following these innovative designs were mini-UAVs called the ‘Birdeyes.’ The small and man-portable battery operated Birdeye 400 UAV is designed to support infantry battalions and special operations teams while the larger Birdeye 650D are vehicular launched Mini- UAVs, capable of operating for more than 15 hours and providing organic ISR for brigade level forces. The Panther system, a drone designed for Vertical
Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) and longer endurance, combines the advantages of no runway take-off and landing (VTOL) and fix wing flight capability.
Other platforms include tethered platforms, such as the Hovermast, developed by SkySapience, that can lift about six kg to an altitude of 300 ft. These drones utilize the tether to provide energy and data link, sustaining the drone in the air for hours or days. These systems are designed with advanced flight control and stabilization, enabling accurate position keeping and wind compensation, and allowing operations from moving platforms such as vehicles or vessels at sea.
Enhanced Capabilities of Ground Segments and Applications
Enhanced ground segment capabilities include automatic taxi, takeoff and landing features, and automation for gathering intelligence information in real-time. This provides the end-user with increased operational efficiency and flight safety. As a pioneer in unmanned systems design and operation, Israel is also positioned as a leader in the integration of UAS operations in civil and military airspace, developing Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), and Search and Avoid sensors, while contributing its professional expertise and innovation to the standards being developed in Europe and the US regulative forums.
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