The Next Revolution: Automatic Handling of Information

An exclusive interview with Elad Aharonson, Elbit Systems' EVP & GM ISTAR Division, about the future of intelligence/surveillance systems and UAVs, including revelations regarding new developments

The SkEye system mounted on board a Hermes 900 UAV (Photo: Elbit Systems)

When Elbit Systems announced a significant structural change about two years ago, their initiative raised numerous question marks.

In the context of that change, Elbit Systems established their ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition & Reconnaissance) division in order to connect the intelligence, surveillance and electro-optical activities of El-Op (Elbit Systems' long-standing subsidiary) to their Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) activity, which had been taking place at a separate plant.

Is it already possible, after two years, to evaluate the results of that change? Has the merging of two giant organs within Elbit Systems proven itself?

Elad Aharonson, Elbit Systems' Executive Vice President and General Manager of their ISTAR Division, responded in an exclusive interview to Israel Defense: "Elbit Systems' Intelligence or ISTAR Division deals with intelligence/surveillance and target acquisition. The division set out in this format in April 2015. The first year was devoted to the task of sorting the organization, the procedures, understanding what we want. It worked very nicely. At the same time we had to run out and bring in business. Everything was done on the run. To my delight, both 2015 and 2016 were excellent years for us. We already begin to see the results."

What was the main idea behind the merging of the two organs?

"Generally, our vision is to provide our clients with a comprehensive solution that includes all of the sensor types for the area of interest, and then processing of the information and converting it into material that is relevant for the decision-making process at the right time and by the appropriate element.

"In my view, this thing has three tiers that we need to address. The first tier consists of the platforms and sensors: we need platforms that will keep improving, namely – operate for longer periods of time and at longer ranges. They should have a greater payload carrying capacity, with each payload producing better-looking and better-sounding results, as the sensors themselves are also progressing constantly.

"The challenge regarding the second tier is interconnecting the sensors. It is not enough to have a sensor fitted to a platform and sensing the terrain – you want to see what happens when you interconnect sensors of different types: electro-optical sensors, Radar sensors, ComInt sensors and so forth. We have several projects that accomplish this interconnection precisely.

"The third tier is, in my opinion, the direction in which the market is currently heading: it is a primary need of the users, and the intention is to succeed in taking full advantage of the information being collected. It is not enough to deploy the appropriate platforms in the field and to install the appropriate sensors that you had managed to interconnect.

"This is the point where the aspect of handling the information – the Big Data – comes into the picture. Eventually, it is a situation where you have massive amounts of data, as my clients keep telling me: 'The data are spilling off my desk. I am unable to do anything with them.' We need to have this entire thing automated. My clients currently purchase an electro-optical payload or some other payload – but what they really need is analyzed, correlated information that would enable them to make a decision. That is where we are going. It is a time-consuming process, it calls for a massive development effort and for the revision of professional and business concepts. But I think that the mass of data being made available to us requires that we know how to handle the information automatically, as otherwise it will be completely pointless. In my vision, the sensor and the unmanned platform industry will merge with the data industry and the required solution will be produced."

What about the concept of "Terrain Dominance" or "Persistent Area Surveillance"? In the past, this concept was the 'talk of the town', but in the last two years it is mentioned less frequently.

"In my view, terrain dominance / persistent area surveillance is a profile that refers precisely to what I have said before from an operational angle, a technological angle. What is 'terrain dominance'? It is the ability to monitor an area continuously and understand whatever takes place there, and then operate in that area. I use the term 'terrain dominance' less frequently as now everything is regarded as 'terrain dominance'. At the Paris Air Show (June 2017) we unveiled our SkEye and GroundEye systems, which perform persistent area surveillance through the VisInt, Optroic dimension (from the air and from the ground, respectively). They do just that: sense the area all the time. Now the question is – what do you do with all that information? The major advantage of all of these systems is their data processing capability, their connection with other databases and the algorithms behind all those things. We are at the outset of the process, although we have already made considerable progress. Subsequently, we will be elsewhere. In my opinion, the entire intelligence system will undergo a process of very dramatic optimization.

"The days when you installed a single payload on a single UAV that transmitted (the data) to a single interpreter who monitored his video image only in real time have gone. In that era, if an incident occurred one meter away (outside the frame) or two minutes too early – you would fail to see it. It would no longer be relevant. Today, on the other hand, we can monitor the entire area over a very broad spectrum, including the time dimension. We can determine what happened yesterday and the day before yesterday and where the person who has just entered was and where he had come from. Now, all you have to know is how to link all of that together. 'Terrain dominance' is still highly relevant, but this term no longer describes everything we can provide."

At the Paris Air Show, you were finally authorized to reveal more information about the SkEye system. What can you tell us about the system that has not been known thus far?

"The system was conceived as a lesson from the operations of the video set-up of the State of Israel a few years ago. We realized that we deploy many UAVs in the air and each one of them has a video payload that monitors a given piece of land at a given moment, while incidents are occurring all of the time and in every piece of land.

"The system we have recently unveiled monitors a large area, about 80 square kilometers, all the time, and in fact records everything. Then, when you receive an (intelligence) indication, you can walk through space or time and search for it – even if you did not have a person monitoring this thing in real time."

For the entire space?

"The entire 80 square kilometer area is being video-photographed continuously at a very high resolution. This input is stored in the system's servers as long as the system is airborne, and then you can correlate that with anything that might have happened. You can search the area even two weeks later. If you found out that someone had received a telephone call on a given day at a given settlement – you can go and start searching for that retroactively. It is there – it was recorded. You no longer 'miss' anything.

"We provided the same thing for the ground domain through our GroundEye system, which operates according to the same rationale. Here the system sits on the ground and monitors a specific area from a mast or a tower. It operates continuously, free of the coverage restrictions that apply to UAVs, but the viewing angle is oblique. Nevertheless, this system provides an excellent solution for challenges such as border protection and security for critical installations. Additionally, in the urban domain as well, the system monitors whatever takes place around it.

"The extreme breakthrough of the systems will occur when all of the human interpreters have become redundant, as at the moment the limitation is not the optronic system, but the human interpreters – how long they can interrogate, and how effectively they can do that. For this reason, we initiated a process of automation, and we will have a system that would do that very efficiently and all the time. There is no point in a human operator sitting and watching the display screen – with so much information he will simply not be able to make it."

Today the system is unable to identify interesting occurrences in the area of interest automatically?

"Today's system possesses certain analytical capabilities, but we have not yet completed a process of fully automation."

So in fact, this also includes a kind of artificial intelligence (AI)?

"That is definitely the next stage. The initial stages before that have to be completed first, but we will get there. Elbit Systems has several activities that are heading precisely in the direction of self-learning, but it will take some time before we reach a state of full operational competence. It has to do with the evolution of this field."

Have these systems proven themselves operationally?

"The system works operationally and produces very nice results."

The Future of UAVs

Elad Aharonson rose through the ranks of the IDF as an officer in the precision-guided munitions units of the Artillery Corps. In his civilian career, before he was appointed as General Manager of the ISTAR Division, he had led the UAS activity at Elbit Systems. The accomplishments of that activity in the last decade included the joint development of the WatchKeeper UAV with Thales of Europe for the British Army, and mega-deals involving sales of the Hermes-900 UAV to the Swiss Army, to the IDF and to other countries.

How does the field of UAV platforms relate to the conceptual changes in the field of intelligence/surveillance?

"The users have become accustomed to a situation where they can find out whatever they want to know. For this purpose, it is our job to help them deploy the appropriate platforms and the appropriate sensors over the area of interest. The aerial world in general is switching to unmanned platforms. You no longer need the high costs associated with keeping the crews airborne for long periods of time. There is no risk associated with the employment of people. UAVs can remain airborne for a lot longer. For example, the Hermes-900 can reach an endurance of 30 hours and over.

"In my opinion, the aerial field is heading in two directions at the moment: one involves the development of a large UAV capable of remaining airborne for long periods of time while covering a very large area. In this respect we were very successful with the Hermes-900. For example, we have recently won a tender by the UN for assisting UN forces operating in Mali, Africa.

"The other direction involves small UAVs, where the price levels are lower but the technology already enables you to remain airborne for a long time. Admittedly, the payload carrying capacity is limited, but when you connect it with the general trend of miniaturization – you end up with a UAV weighing 50 to 100 kilograms, capable of remaining airborne for 20 hours and of carrying payloads that provide very effective operational solutions. When the budget is limited – this is a very decent solution.

"The world is speaking about taking it one step further – to the employment of multiple small UAVs in swarms. This has not yet taken place operationally, but one day we will undoubtedly be able to do it and it will provide an alternative for the large UAVs – multiple small UAVs operating together, with all of the advantages and disadvantages this concept offers. In a moment, as far as I am concerned, satellite communication will be available for very small UAVs, and then we would be able to fly them very far and very high."

What about the UAVs for 'Over the Hill' ranges, IDF designation 'Rokhev Shamayim'?

"Electrical UAVs like the 'Rokhev Shamayim' are doing a fantastic job, but an additional layer is being developed above them, the one I am referring to, of UAVs weighing between 30 and 150 kilograms, with low maintenance costs, hybrid or electrical motors – and now with extended communication and operating ranges. This category offers a very decent solution for a major part of the needs.

"Some of my colleagues are speaking in dichotomous terms – either a high layer or a low layer – I think that we will also have an intermediate layer.

"We already have projects in progress with the IDF Ground Arm involving a UAV for the brigade commander level – these systems are being supplied to the IDF Ground Arm and are doing a great job. The weight of these UAVs is almost 40 kilograms and they are propelled by an electrical motor. This is the system we call Skylark-III. Its range is 40 to 50 kilometers and its endurance is 5 hours. This UAV can carry a payload of up to 10 kilograms, and it fits very well into the IDF ground warfare concepts."

What about the very high layer, close to the atmosphere, where El-Op employs space-borne sensors?

"I believe there will be some developments in that area, too. I said at one of the last conferences of Israel Defense that the business threat to airborne surveillance systems comes from space, and I still think so. The entire field of intelligence collection or space-borne activity will expand. Prices will go down and the systems will be simplified. Admittedly, the space medium presents some degree of complexity – you cannot have a malfunction in space – but on the other hand it also has many advantages. Many aspects are very simple."

What about UAVs operating at altitudes outside the atmosphere, like the US Global Hawk?

"We are currently working on platforms for the more standard airspace segments, of 30,000 to 40,000 feet. At the same time, we have another activity in space, where we focus primarily on the optronic field, in cooperation with IMOD and IAI."

Europe on the Rise

As far as major opportunities are concerned, how do you analyze the market?

"After a few years of considerable growth in Latin America, things are slowing down a bit over there. On the other hand, in Europe we have had some very nice success stories. Eastern Asia was always a major market for us and continues to be just that. We are very active over there. In Africa, as always, opportunities pop up. There are successful and less successful years over there. The USA is another important market, but our current focus is on Europe and Asia."

That is interesting, as Europe was regarded, about five years ago, as a "dead" continent in terms of defense export business.

"Correct. The increase in sales probably stems from several factors – the commitment of those countries to increasing their defense budgets, tensions in several areas vis-à-vis the Russians and the issue of immigration and terrorism by radical Islamist elements. Additionally, when armed forces from Europe left Afghanistan, they once again reviewed their armored platform and naval vessel fleets – and that has had an effect as well.

"Europe is on the rise. We have had a few success stories in the USA as well, but generally, the primary markets are currently Europe and Asia."

One final word about Elbit Systems' Music system, the protection system for aircraft that utilizes the Directional Infrared Countermeasure (DIRCM) technology. Do the sales of this system, which started over the last few years, fulfill your expectations?

"We had very high expectations with regard to the DIRCM system and indeed, it has been very successful. In fact, it is a family of systems – for large and small fixed-wing aircraft and for helicopters. The world is beginning to understand this capability and we are regarded as global leaders in this field.

"We invested substantial resources and countless trials in the development of this system, and went through a very long certification process. Eventually, aircraft fitted with our system currently land at JFK (the international airport in New York City – A.R.) and at Heathrow, UK, as well as throughout the globe. Along with the version designed to protect military aircraft and the market of executive jets, this is a very nice growth engine for us, and we will continue to develop it."  

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