The State of Israel was born amid conflict, and its unique position in global geopolitics has ensured that issues of security and defence have remained constant national concerns ever since. Any country forced to fight five major wars in the opening four decades of its existence is bound to acquire an acute awareness of its own military needs and the importance of being able to meet them – independently if necessary.
The upshot of this has been the development of a sophisticated and wide-ranging defence industry, comprising state-owned companies and private firms, capable of supplying not only the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) itself but also military forces from around the world.
Deservedly renowned in the early days for its prowess in small-arms manufacture (the iconic Uzi was, after all, designed in 1948), Israel's subsequently expanded capabilities have given rise to an array of high-tech systems and equipped today's IDF with a state-of-the-art arsenal. Behind much of this continuing innovation lies a strong culture of government support and some of the world's most advanced military electronics, robotics and computer technologies.
Israeli UAVs – Hermes 900 and Skylark
One area where this is particularly apparent is in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Elbit Systems is arguably the company at the forefront of these developments, with products suitable for everything from soldier-level use to battalion-level and beyond.
The Skylark mini-UAV, for instance, has already notched up an enviable reputation for very close range, "over-the-hill" type operations, particularly in counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist roles. Currently in service with a number of armies, this highly portable, man-packed device is designed for ready pre-mission assembly and hand launching, making it swift to deploy and versatile in use.
With a gyroscopically stabilised gimballed payload, and capable of tracking moving objects, the Skylark is largely autonomous from take-off to its eventual recovery stall onto a small inflatable cushion, feeding real-time video and telemetry to a portable ground station throughout the flight. In addition to cutting-edge electronics and software drawn from the company's large UAV projects, composite materials have been used extensively in the construction, the net result being proven close surveillance at an affordable price.
At the other end of the scale is Elbit's latest large UAV offering, the Hermes 900. This too has made a name for itself, having successfully completed its maiden flight at the end of 2009. This new, top-of-the-line intelligence tool is shortly expected to begin serial production, offering expanded mission capabilities to the military user and further cementing the company's position in the industry.
Building on the 170,000-flight-hour track record of the earlier Hermes 450, the new UAV extends its predecessor's performance to offer longer endurance, a higher operational ceiling, a larger payload capacity and all-weather functionality. Add to this a silent engine, innovative electronics and avionics, cutting-edge electro-optic systems, laser designators and sensor technology, 36-hour endurance, a top speed of 120kt and a payload capacity of 300kg and the combined package seems set to raise the bar for the sector as a whole.
Safe surveillance on the ground – EyeDrive and EyeBall
The IDF's intent to ensure a very low casualty rate is enshrined amongst the basic principles of the force's main doctrine and, unsurprisingly, this has also predicated the adoption of unmanned – and often highly innovative – technologies elsewhere.
The EyeDrive – the ODF Optronics lightweight, all-terrain small unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) – is one such an example. Designed for defence and security applications in urban environments, this four-wheeled remote-controlled mini-robot offers all-weather, wireless surveillance using panoramic 360° video imaging and proprietary "point-and-go" sensor guidance technology. Weighing only 3.5kg, the EyeDrive robot is extremely manoeuvrable and able to negotiate obstacles. Its rugged, compact body allows it to be thrown into position ahead of its mission. Its video feed automatically displays in the correct orientation should the unit land upside down.
In a similar vein, ODF Optronics also offers the EyeBall, an advanced audio-visual surveillance device a little bigger than a tennis ball that can be thrown into suspicious areas to reconnoitre them before troops enter. Self-righting and rotatable, the EyeBall also offers 360° intelligence gathering, its on-board camera able to function in the dark using night-illumination. It was used extensively during Israel's Operation Cast Lead action in Gaza and was recently credited with helping to save the life of a young US hostage by Ohio's Metro Swat team – on this occasion being dropped down a laundry shoot on the end of a length of string.
Israel's robotic rise – SnakeCam and Guardium
While both of these are currently operational and increasingly entering service around the world, the IDF itself was to provide one of last year's biggest stirs in the small military robotics sector with its release of a video of the new surveillance snake it is developing.
Intended to help investigate tunnels and other inaccessible places – a role ideally suited to its biologically inspired design – the 2m SnakeCam provides continuous streaming video from a front-mounted camera, its movements being directed over an encrypted wireless link by a single operator.
Although the robot, which is being developed with the assistance of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, remains at the prototype stage, assuming all goes according to plan it could soon be deployed in the field. If and when it is, it could also potentially carry remotely detonated explosives, adding a more active dimension to its observational role.
When it comes to robotically guarding perimeters and installations above-ground, however, G-NIUS Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicles – an Israel Aerospace Industries / Elbit Systems joint venture company – already has a solution to offer in the form of Guardium. This autonomous observation and target interception system provides the perfect answer to routine patrols and fast-developing situations, the component UGVs being able to identify and contain threats until a conventional response can arrive.
Fitted with a tactical geospatial positioning system and with a maximum payload of 300kg, the Guardium vehicle can be equipped with a variety of sensors, communication systems, loudspeakers and a range of lethal and non-lethal weapons to suit operational circumstances.
While the system features auto-target acquisition and automatic tactical area definitions, operations can be coordinated centrally and each UGV – and its warning or weapons systems – can be operated remotely as required. It is scarcely surprising that Guardium has already been selected by the IDF to bolster border security operations and is also under consideration by the country's airport authority.
Israel's expertise in innovative military technology may well be a product of its history, but since there are around 150 companies active in the sector, generating an estimated combined revenue of some $3.5bn, it clearly remains relevant to the nation today. With a record national defence budget of 53.2bn shekels ($14.5bn) in 2010, and in an increasingly uncertain world facing burgeoning asymmetric and hybrid conflicts, that hardly looks set to change any time soon.