Robots on Every Scene

Intercommunicating robot swarms through a battle zone are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Israeli scientists and defense industry personnel are dead set on making it a reality. Even before these swarms appear, robots are performing dozens of tasks for the IDF

Snake-shaped robot slithers between obstacles, an unmanned bulldozer clears away IEDs (improvised explosive devices), an autonomous vehicle takes off on surveillance missions, and a “butterfly” robot whisks through the air on fluttering wings – these and more are the panoply of robotic tools being developed in Israel. Robot swarms that operate and intercommunicate without human intervention are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Israeli scientists and defense industry personnel are dead set on making it a reality.

IsraelDefense (February-March 2011) featured a comprehensive review of Israeli-made UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles); however, the number of USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) and UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) for naval and ground missions is also rapidly growing. Some of the unmanned vehicles that are used for urban warfare and border security are purchased abroad.

Many other robots are being jointly developed by the IDF, the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, defense industries, and leading academic centers.

UGVs Patrol

UGVs are currently operational in the IDF and other security bodies. One of these devices, the Guardium UGS (Unmanned Ground System), an autonomous vehicle for border defense, was developed by G-nius, jointly owned by Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems. The UGV is equipped with sensors capable of identifying obstacles at short and long distances while broadcasting 3-D pictures to a control room. The vehicle is part of Ben Gurion International Airport’s security layout.

The IDF is also sending out the Guardium on daily security tasks around the Gaza Strip and sections of Israel’s Security Fence in the West Bank. The attempt to incorporate the vehicle into intelligence gathering missions, however, was deemed a failure. The Guardium can also travel on unfamiliar terrain, serving as a forward echelon (point man, if you will) for combat troops in enemy territory. It is also designed to open routes, lay an ambush, carry out surveillance, provide logistical supply, and assist in medical evacuation.

Another autonomous vehicle that G-nius developed is the “AvantGuard”. This UGV carries forward and rear cameras that provide 360-degree observation. It is also geared with designated electro-optic loads, communications relays, transmission jammers, and 7.62 mm light weapon emplacements. “TALOS” (Transportable Autonomous patrol for Land border Surveillance system), an autonomous vehicle for the defense of borders and broad areas, is in advanced stages of development in a joint IAI - European R&D Fund project.

TALOS is able to identify, spot, scan, and track suspicious vehicles and border infiltrators. The aim of the project at this stage is to demonstrate the efficacy of an autonomous, modular, mobile system for protecting land borders.

Robots in an Urban Environment

Elbit Systems and Galileo Motion Instruments have developed the VIPeR (Versatile, Intelligent, Portable Robot) for urban combat. The 12 kilogram robot, that a single soldier can carry, is able to climb stairs and negotiate diverse obstacles in accomplishing a wide-range of missions.

It can be operated from a distance of two kilometers (maximum) for eight hours or more. VIPeR is installed with a camera for transmitting real time images from the operations. The UGV can support various weapon systems, such as grenade launchers or submachine guns with scopes and laser range finders, and its adjustable wheels can be adapted to almost any terrain.

Elbit has also produced a smaller version – the Mini-VIPeR - weighing only 3.5 kilograms. This UGV can be chucked into a building and begin transmitting images. It can also enter canals and tunnels on photography missions. The Eye-Drive robot fits in a soldier’s combat vest. Initially used during Israel’s retaliation operation in the Gaza Strip in January 2009 (Operation “Cast Lead”), it weighs only 3 kilograms and is equipped with six cameras. It can be tossed into a building (“Throw ‘n Go”) and immediately transmit pictures that are computer processed into a panoramic view.

Eye Drive can be installed with remote-controlled firing mechanisms to detonate IEDs and suspicious objects before the troops enter a closed area. The robot also checks under vehicles for explosives during security operations. ODF Optronics, the manufacturers of the robot, also developed EyeBall, a grenade-sized ball weighing 500 grams that transmits high-quality pictures from any open space. ODF Optronics, in conjunction with the American firm Remington Technologies, sells EyeBall outside Israel. Rafael’s “Pincher”, another mini-robot, is capable of launching 20 cm-long pencil-sized rockets to detonate bombs and IEDs. An attached camera assists in locating the bombs and aiming the rockets by remote control.

The Engineer Corps’ spec ops unit (Yahalom) uses many of the robots that the IDF has introduced into service in recent years. The unit’s base in the center of Israel bristles with robots in practically every corner. An especially conspicuous device is the “Keter Paz” (“Golden Crown”), a remote-controlled tractor for clearing mines and IEDs. Golden Crown was developed in a joint project between Rafael and the Technion in Haifa. In 2009, IAI revealed another robot called REX, a six-wheeled vehicle used to transport supplies to ground forces. The robot has a 200 kilogram cargo capacity and can accompany troops for 72 hours without refueling. IAI is working on another robot for the IDF, called “Pooh the Bear”.

This device is a remote-controlled bulldozer, built on the chassis of the American Caterpillar Company’s famous D9T. When “Pooh the Bear” becomes operational, it will replace “Dawn Thunder” - a heavily protected, unmanned bulldozer that the IDF uses in missile- and IED-threatened environments. The device is designed for safe and comfortable operation by means of the “Smart Bear” control system. Another IAI robotic device is the ETOP (Electric Tethered Observation Platform) hovering dish that is essentially an observation platform attached to electric cables capable of carrying 20 kilograms of equipment at a height of 100 meters. The IAI’s Miniature Robotics Lab which develops miniature technologies verging on nanotechnology is currently experimenting with a mini-robot dubbed “Butterfly”, which is intended to imitate the flying motion of the insect. Butterfly whisks through the air by fluttering four wings and simultaneously “paddling” forward on the wing thrust. The remote-controlled Butterfly comes equipped with an engine, sensors, and steering and communication systems, is 20 cm long and weighs in at only 12 grams.

Swarms and packs

While battlefields dominated by robots “zapping” each other is still the exclusive domain of sci-fi flicks, the next stage in military robotics is the development of robots capable of being integrated into the battlefield next to human soldiers, and robots that operate in “swarms” or “packs” while in continual intercommunication. Thus, for example, the Israeli defense establishment has channeled funds to Bar-Ilan University’s Computer Sciences Department to develop an algorithm that allows robots to carry out “pack” patrols and warn of enemy incursion.

The basic assumption is that when robots operate in packs, even if the enemy discovers everything about them, he’ll still be incapable of penetrating their defense network since their movement defies prediction. The robots will be programmed to divide up the sectors among themselves without recourse to human intervention, and swiftly respond to any invasion. Each robot will be customized with an array of sensors, such as video cameras and sound wave recognition devices. Information that the sensors pick up will be processed to produce a detailed, unified picture. Another technology that Israeli engineers are intensely working on is the use of robotic swarms on the battlefield.

This refers to miniature robots operating like an insect swarm: hundreds, perhaps thousands, of robots scuttling across a given area and making collective decisions. “Realization of the idea is still far off”, Israeli experts are quick to point out, “but as far as the various robot applications are concerned, reality has already outstripped the imagination.

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The complete article was published in the second issue (April-May) of IsraelDefense