The Future Technologies & Robotic Infrastructures Section is a part of the Technological Division of the IDF Ground Arm HQ. It is responsible for the development of new robotic systems for the IDF Ground Arm. The Section operates under the Maneuvering Systems Department within the Robotics & Combat Engineering Branch. The Branch consists of four sections: two deal with robotics, one with heavy engineering/earthmoving platforms and the fourth section is in charge of a unique project. The two robotics sections are the Robotic Systems Section, in charge of procurement, assimilation and maintenance of robotic systems, and the Future Technologies Section, in charge of innovation in the field of ground robotics.
One of the major projects the Section is currently working on involves the establishment of a national robot testing facility, in cooperation with the Ministry of Transport & Road Safety. The robot testing facility will be a civilian facility shared by the IDF. One of the sites being considered is located near Netanya, but the location is yet to be finalized – it is still under discussion. At present, the IDF tests robotic systems at the trial grounds of the Trial & Quality Assurance unit.
"The operational need for robots consists of three primary elements," the IDF source told us. "To replace human operators in Dull, Dirty & Dangerous (DDD) missions, like the extrication of a tank, for example. Let a robot do that." The Section started dealing with robots as far back as 1994. The first projects involved bomb disposal robots. The major leap took place in 2006, following a robotic competition by US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in which an IDF team participated. The mission was to build an autonomous robot capable of doing things on its own.
After the competition, Elbit Systems and IAI established the joint venture G-Nius. G-Nius developed unmanned ground systems for the IDF. In 2008 they delivered the Guardium UGV and subsequently the Nachshon UGV. "The G-Nius project was an outcome of that competition at DARPA," the IDF source said. The G-Nius Company closed down in 2016 and Elbit Systems replaced its products by introducing the SEGEV UGCV (Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle), which is based on the Ford F-350 truck.
Standards for Algorithms
Our IDF source explained that this is a new field that does not have complete standardization. "We monitor the standards being issued around the world with regard to robotics. Such standards are issued in the USA and we monitor them and adopt some of them, subject to revisions, for use in the IDF. Adhering to international standards in this field will enable us to avoid becoming dependent on a single supplier in the future," our source explained.
"Even now commercial bomb disposal robots are sold without such devices as cameras. Because of the applicable standards, it is not worthwhile for the robot manufacturer to produce cameras as well. This is the advantage of standardization. As far as autonomous vehicles are concerned, there is a standardization challenge regarding the 3L/4L levels, so that you may license the vehicle.
"About eight years ago, when we started experimenting with these vehicles, we realized we did not know how to test algorithms. We started developing a simulation system for testing algorithms. We proved it works. The Americans are heading in that direction, too. Our objective is to align with the American standards, for two reasons: so that we can import from the USA, and so that our industries will be able to sell their products internationally."
In the IDF, they are currently engaged in an in-depth learning process in this context. One advanced field of algorithms which such technology giants as Apple, Google and Microsoft have entered as well involves intelligence for robots. "There is motion intelligence and mission intelligence. Some of the developments are classified, mainly those dealing with mission intelligence," our IDF source said.
"A study project currently under way involves autonomous convoys. You can fit a robotic kit to any vehicle. In the USA the concept involves mixed convoys, made up of both manned and robotic vehicles. In Israel the concept is different. Logistics is one of the most important subjects in robotic research. You have a limited number of drivers on the battlefield, as well as inside the country. The objective is to employ such vehicles inside the country, too. The element in charge of the operational doctrine for robotics is not us but the combat elements. We only advise them on what the technology can do. There is a plan for implementing robotics in the IDF, but it is classified."
As far as the aspect of cooperation with the industries is concerned, almost all of the Israeli defense industries cooperate with the IDF on this subject – as do several foreign companies, some of which bring their robots over here to be tested by the IDF. In some projects, officers from the Section must be assigned to the industries. Regarding companies other than defense industries, some of them want to cooperate while others do not, owing to the fact that the military is involved. "In Israel, almost everyone cooperates. Overseas, not everyone does," our IDF source said. "We work closely with IMOD's Directorate of Defense Research & Development (DDR&D). We maintain very close relations with them around the various projects. We communicate on a daily basis."
"There is a Shortage of Algorithm Specialists"
The personnel of the Section is not excessive. The complement for the simulator is a person and a half, but in effect, about 80 people are working on it in academia and the industries, our IDF source explained. "The number of people at the Section does not properly reflect reality. We have academic reservists who study mechanical engineering. Some of them are participants of the 'academic high school' programs. These are young individuals with scientific degrees who receive their degrees before their recruitment. Some of them hail from a software background. We developed a training process for officers that enables them to become involved in the projects fairly quickly.
"We also have compulsory service troopers. We select them through robotics competitions. They are familiar with this field of activity. The officers embark on a long journey before they qualify as system engineers. They need to be trained and qualified within a few months. They are much in demand in the civilian market, so it is difficult to keep them with us.
"In the industry, it takes at least two years to qualify a system engineer in this field. We discharge them fully prepared for the industry. Our officers go through a process of several years. They start with open electronics and code writing. They stay with us for six years – three years compulsory service plus three years regular service.
"There is a shortage of algorithm specialists, so we are involved in an attempt to launch a joint project with academic institutions, including the University of Ariel, the Ben-Gurion University and the Afeka Tel-Aviv Academic College of Engineering. The objective is to assign the students to real, unclassified projects and prepare them for reality."
Working on a Robotic Kit
One of the primary development trends of the Section is aimed at producing a robotic kit that would convert any ground platform used by the IDF into a smart platform. "In the past, we would build robots from scratch," the IDF source said. "We revised our approach in recent years, and now we develop building blocks for robots. The objective is to develop a kit that would convert any platform into a smart platform. We want to reach a situation where there is no difference between a manned vehicle and an unmanned vehicle."
The IDF presents a Lego-like robotics development concept. You review the operational need, then you review the capabilities and link them together. The objective is to minimize the development costs and keep abreast of evolving technologies in the field. Civilian technologies are more advanced than military technologies in the field of vehicle autonomy, and that enables the IDF to convert existing solutions and adapt them to their needs.
"There are robots that will help troopers carry loads, there are bomb disposal robots and robots like the SEGEV UGCV. In the civilian market they are currently speaking about a kit that would convert standard cars into smart cars. It is a trend that we want to be a part of. The concept is to develop a kit that converts any platform into a smart platform – a tank, an APC, a Jeep and so forth," our IDF source concluded.