IAI had marked the field of unmanned vehicles generally and UAVs in particular as far back as fifty years ago,” says Shaul Shahar of IAI, and adds: “Those who believed in the vision of unmanned vehicles back then were right.
“Now we are looking 10 to 20 years ahead and the vision is that unmanned vehicles – in the air, at sea and on the ground, and possibly in the future in outer space as well – will continue to constitute an anchor for all of our activities, with all that entails.”
Shaul Shahar spoke in the context of an exclusive interview in preparation for the international AUVSI-UVID Conference, scheduled for November 9-10 at the Tel-Aviv Convention Center. This year, the massive event links the Israel Defense fourth annual conference of the unmanned vehicle industry (UVID) with the conference of the Israeli Chapter of AUVSI and the Association of Engineers, Architects and Graduates in Technological Sciences in Israel, held in Israel once every three years. This year, the list of speakers will include the Governor of Mississippi, USA, a state that endeavors to lead the UAV industry, Ofir Shoham, the Head of the Weapon System & Technological Infrastructure Research & Development Administration (MAFAT) at IMOD and other prominent speakers from the industry in Israel and overseas.
The Chairman of the AUVSI-UVID Conference is David Harari, one of the founding fathers of the Israeli UAV industry. The Head of the AUVSI Program, which focuses on the technological aspects, is the Chairman of the Israeli Chapter of AUVSI, Dr. Arie Perry, while the Head of the UVID Program, Alon Unger, will lead the discussion regarding the operational aspects of the use of unmanned vehicles. A massive exhibition will be held alongside the conference.
Shaul Shahar has a broad perspective regarding the field of UAVs and the future of that field. Before joining IAI he had served in senior positions in the IDF Intelligence Directorate, including a tenure as commander of Unit 9900 – the visual intelligence unit, at the rank of colonel. At IAI, he heads the military division, which includes the MALAT plant (unmanned vehicles), the LAHAV plant (where, among other things, the wings for the F-35 future fighter are being assembled) and other activities.
Hasn’t IAI fully exhausted the field of unmanned vehicles?
“Absolutely not,” says Shaul Shahar. “It is a growth engine for IAI – one of just a few. The field is a business line that exists in its own right and produces systems of systems, namely – unmanned systems augmented by support systems.
“In addition to our familiar activity in the air, for the sea medium we already have the Unmanned Surface Vehicle designated ‘Katana’ (manufactured by IAI’s MALAM plant). In the ground medium we also focus on the field of unmanned vehicles, although the progress we are making is slower than our progress in the air.
“In the air, the major leap in the field of UAVs occurred after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when the Americans entered Afghanistan and Iraq. Extremely long asymmetrical conflicts evolved there, and consequently this platform had a powerful impact. One of the characteristics of UAVs is the fact that they can remain airborne for long periods of time, so time-consuming activities may be performed using them. In the ground medium, we face the exact same needs, and to some extent the need is even more acute owing to the risk to human life that the mission presents.
“If you can introduce unmanned systems to the ground medium – for example for the task of resupplying equipment and ammunition and so forth – that is an actual need. A breakthrough will be achieved in this field, but this will take time, as in the ground medium the unmanned vehicles face more challenges. In the air there is no flora, no stairs, rocks or the proximity of combat troopers as in the ground medium. Some technological solutions are already available to help overcome those ground obstacles, and we are currently waiting for the trigger that would generate that breakthrough. I cannot say whether it will take place within two years or within ten years – but I know for certain that it will come.
“In the air, one half of some missions are already being executed by UAVs, so I assume that the use of unmanned platforms in the ground medium will reach high percentages as well. At the moment, the percentage of missions executed by unmanned platforms is negligible. In our vision, it may not reach as high as 50% of the missions, but even in the ground medium, unmanned vehicles will execute numerous missions. I have no doubt about it.”
Are unmanned vehicles evolving for use in outer space, too?
“Yes. In space you can use all of the UAVs that replace small satellites operating at an altitude of 60,000 feet, mainly for communication purposes. We have the ability to consider the entire spectrum: we can build satellites, we know how to build aircraft and ground vehicles – so we are looking at outer space, too. Israel is one of six or seven countries that are the members of the space club. We have the option of considering that ‘domain’ owing to our capabilities.”
What about the subterranean medium?
“Here the activities are more focused. The combat operations during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 brought this medium into the limelight. The issue of underground tunnel detection is on the agenda and we are taking part in that effort. This is a real security need of the State of Israel, but that is not our primary activity.”
So let’s go back to the UAV activity – regarding the large UAV categories – like IAI’s Heron and Heron TP, have they become obsolete? After all, a system miniaturization process is under way and the large platform may become redundant…
“I think that in order to get an answer (to this question) all you have to do is read the newspapers. The giant UAV ‘Reaper’ is doing great. It is spoken of everywhere, and the same goes for the ‘Global Hawk’, which operates in Japan and Australia. The Americans are selling these vehicles worldwide. Admittedly, in this size category, clients do not purchase layouts of 50 platforms, but only squadrons of about five platforms, but that means that the need does exist. These vehicles are not intended for countries in Africa, but they are suitable for more significant countries whose territories include expansive sea areas, like South Korea, Japan, the USA and Canada. So as you can see – there is demand for large UAVs. Will we be developing a Global Hawk? No, but we are trying to develop a somewhat different competition over the missions that can be executed from the flight levels where we operate.
“Regarding the layer of the Heron TP, we have identified a need among the European countries – significant countries interested in significant aerial capabilities that can replace mission aircraft, for the benefit of such missions as intelligence gathering (SigInt). These UAVs perform intelligence missions. These systems operate at long ranges and carry strategic payloads. One of our primary anchors in this market is the State of Israel itself. We still have orders from IMOD for this platform.”
So the enormous size of the unmanned aerial vehicle has not been fully exhausted?
“Definitely not. Even in Israel they anticipate expansion in this size category. These are costly and significant capabilities – but they produce excellent results. To this day, we have had no overseas sales of the Heron TP. We are currently involved in several significant competitions and in some of them we are in good shape, but we should wait for the results. Specifically, we regard these systems as in-demand, and substantial deals are on the agenda. If they materialize, we will be extremely satisfied. At the moment, only Israel and the USA have these platforms – an unmanned intelligence gathering system. The Italians are trying to convert a manned aircraft, but their project is still in its early days.”
As far as you are concerned, what is the highlight in the smaller UAV category?
“Look, it is no secret that we at IAI focus on the higher end of the market. With regard to the smaller aerial vehicles, we decided to focus on where the platform is not the main issue – but the systems are. It is difficult for me to compete with the manufacturing of all kinds of UAVs by others because in those sizes there are hundreds of manufacturers and the competition is fierce.
“We come from the mission side and offer intelligence sensors by IAI’s ELTA and TAMAM plants. Our focus is on the system aspects that we can offer, and we cooperate with contractors who can offer the platform.”
What about Kamikaze UAVs?
“IAI is involved in that activity. Everyone knows the HAROP and the HARPY. I am not sufficiently familiar with that loitering platform activity, which does not belong to my division.”
What about rotorcraft? There is a buzz regarding this field…
“Today everyone is preoccupied with rotorcraft. It is the same buzz that we had about Mini UAVs and Micro UAVs a few years ago. I believe that what pushed the rotorcraft to the fore were the toys, which are mostly made in China and sold even at duty free stores.
“With regard to the rotorcraft category, too – we will not aspire to develop our own platform. Contrary to the UAVs in the past, where the platform determined the missions that may be executed, with rotorcraft the situation is just the opposite: the systems are more significant. The question is how to implement the mission.
“Amazon is involved in an effort to use rotorcraft for deliveries. Consequently, the US authorities have already issued authorizations for the operation of more than a thousand systems. They are under restrictions regarding flight level, but the breakthrough occurred in the USA about three-four years ago. The moment they compelled the FAA to open this thing – the train left the station. The question now is when each barrier will be breached. The rate of progress will be the rate at which the constraints are being resolved. Google, for example, which is a highly significant company that joins this game, can have a dramatic effect on this field. The major corporations that enter this playground are the ones determining the rules. From the moment the business superpowers joined in, the game has changed into something else.
“And where does IAI stand in this context?” Shaul Shahar asks and answers: “We are reviewing our activities, but they will focus primarily on the systems and applications market rather than on the low-cost market.”
So, in fact, the hovering platforms you developed in the past for military applications, like the Ghost for example, did not succeed?
“Let’s put it like this: the Ghost did not catch on because there are alternatives for it. The Ghost started out as a military system possessing capabilities that are far superior to those of any common rotorcraft. However, for certain uses clients today do not need such costly platforms. The civilian world is different from the military world.”
Regarding the ground world, do you see the main trend in the development of (unmanned) vehicles for logistic missions, like IAI’s Rex load-carrying platform, or do you also develop vehicles that will play a more significant role on the battlefield?
“In the ground medium we will witness the same development as in the UAV world, except that the development of the combat doctrines takes more time. One of the reasons for it is that in this medium, the safety aspect is highly critical and very complex: If you want unmanned ground vehicles to operate with troopers walking alongside them, this will have numerous safety-related implications. Consequently, the development will be gradual, so as to enable the users to gain confidence in the capabilities. Then, once a trigger emerges, the development process will speed up.”
So, do you anticipate a breakthrough in the integration of unmanned vehicles in joint operations alongside troopers? In the defense establishment they are talking about some sort of "advance guard" made up of unmanned vehicles that would clear the path ahead of the combat troops…
“Progress has been gradual. Let’s leave it within the bigger picture, without going into details. The task at hand is not the same as in the past – just patrolling the border. Things can be much more advanced. We are working with ground robotics and the progress there will be similar to the progress made in the air medium.”
Do you see, within the foreseeable future, unmanned vehicles operating in swarms?
“Based on what I have seen around the world, I can say that there are universities and research projects dealing with the subject of swarms. At the technological level, solutions are already available. These solutions are based on the communication world. There is nothing specific I can say that is happening at the moment. In my estimate, operation in swarms will evolve from the direction of the smaller vehicles, just like you never see 20 fighter aircraft operating together in the same formation. This is much more relevant to the miniature platforms.”
Of all of the issues that can hinder the unmanned platform world, what do you consider as the bottleneck? Energy? Communication?
“The constraints are not technological. The rate of the technological development precedes all of the other constraints. The number one hindrance is regulation, then there are the legal issues, ethics that have come in all of a sudden, and safety. These issues are highly problematic – and this is just with regard to the smaller platforms. In the world of the larger platforms, there is the issue of aircraft licensing and compliance with aircraft standards. In this case, one of the advantages of IAI stems from the fact that we build aircraft.”
But energy nevertheless restricts the endurance of these platforms…
“Today we can reach endurance of more than 48 hours. When you talk about missions, you must think about the need of the mission. That is a very long time. In space, a satellite can remain airborne without maintenance for 10 to 15 years. UAVs have no such solutions. If you are talking about UAVs in the satellite domain, then you will enter a technological discussion of the energy world.”
After you developed the unmanned vehicle designed specifically to tow aircraft in airports, designated Taxi-Bot, do you intend to address the commercial-civilian unmanned vehicle market more intensively?
“Certainly. I hope that our Taxi-Bot continues to be a success story. We have completed its preliminary implementation at Frankfurt airport and obtained the required licensing. I hope that sales begin to soar, now that we have an operating license for this vehicle.
“Regarding the civilian market where we started with ground robotics and UAVs, we are reviewing our positioning and where the world is heading.”
How effectively have you managed to tap the activity of monitoring for civilian purposes using unmanned vehicles, like the monitoring activity being performed in the Amazonas region of South America?
“In the defense/security market, anyone who needs a mission performed knows they should pay whatever it may cost. In the civilian market, if they can accomplish the mission using a Cessna aircraft that costs US$ 50 per hour, they will continue to do it by using that aircraft, unless I can convince them that a UAV can accomplish the mission 4 or 5 times more effectively. Money is a highly significant factor in that market.”