L’Atelier takes a look at the birth of military drones in Israel and the future of unmanned aerial vehicle technology in its country of origin, where it is currently having some difficulty switching to non-military use.

Drones in Israel: from military to civil use

Drones have been given wide coverage in the media, usually in the context of retail or medical deliveries, for mapping agricultural or urban areas, or for maintenance of buildings or street furniture. In fact, probably the most-discussed subject is the safety risks pertaining to unmanned aerial vehicles. Rarely do we see any reference to the origins of the technology.

Many people are aware that these small aircraft that are gaining ground today in a range of civilian contexts have their origins in the military field. However, it is less widely known that the systems in use today were first developed in Israel. Following the high losses of Israeli air force pilots during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli aerospace industry began looking into the possibility of developing drones equipped with cameras and a communication system to assist pilots in identifying danger zones.

Interviewed for a L'Atelier Numérique (L’Atelier Digital) podcast, David Harari, the former head of Israel Aerospace Industries, the Israeli state company tasked to develop unmanned aerial vehicles, describes the origins of the technology and explains the current situation in Israel regarding its further development.

L’Atelier: In what sense can we say that drones as we know them today were created in Israel?

David Harari: First of all, I’d like to make it clear that unmanned aerial vehicles already existed before Israel started looking at the subject! In fact, what we developed was the very first operational system. What you need to know is that given the particular geopolitical circumstances and the conflicts we had on our borders in the late 1970s, it was important to develop a real-time information system very quickly.

I should also point out that during the same period the Americans were trying to develop a similar system, but for reasons known only to them, they failed. We bought the first generation system from the United States and we succeeded in creating a system suited to war zones largely because Israel was able to adjust its military approach so as to make more effective use of all the added value provided by this kind of information-gathering system.

Listen to the interview with Professor David Harari (in French only) via podcast on L'Atelier Numérique (L’Atelier Digital)

You mentioned the United States. Today they’re the leader in drone development. Can Israel hold its own in this highly competitive market?

I think that Israel has the means to stand out in two areas. The first is the development of new configurations suited to different types of tasks. So far most of the systems in use are based on what are known as fixed-wing aerial vehicles. Other remote control aeronautical configurations – such as the helicopter configuration – are now being looked at. In these helicopters, the rotor system, which turns the blades, wouldn’t be on the outside, as it is today, but inside the fuselage. So you wouldn’t be able to see the rotors from the outside. That’s why we call it a flying car. It’s highly likely that new configurations of this type will continue to be developed.

Then the second area where Israel could compete with other countries is the range of power sources – i.e. electric battery, solar panels, or other types of propulsion.

We’re talking here more about military uses. But what role is Israel now playing in the development of drones in a non-military context?

Well, civil use of drones in Israel hasn’t developed as I would have expected. Today it’s essential to adapt the new solutions I’ve been talking about to the new needs right across the board, whether for military or non-military use. However, the problem lies in the fact that the non-military area is far more complex that one might imagine and it seems to me that the market will only start to grow when we’ve solved two key issues.

The first is to obtain certification of drones by our national civil aviation authority. This is very important, because you have to realise that even though there’s no pilot inside, it is of course still a flying aircraft and so whether it’s a fixed-wing aircraft or a helicopter, it basically has to conform to the country’s regulations. That’s the first point. But it’s not always easy to get this point across, because the ‘pilot’ is sitting 100 or 200 kilometres away from the cockpit, unlike a traditional aeroplane with a pilot on board.

The second point is that potential civilian customers need to be aware of the added value of the system. They need to understand the advantages, especially the financial benefits. The mindset of Israeli companies in this regard has started to change, but it takes time. It won’t be tomorrow, but definitely the day after!

See also: Robots are now invading warehouses!


By Aurore Geraud
Senior Editor & Analyst