Google isn’t the only high-tech group working to produce driverless vehicles. While the Silicon Valley tech giant is still experimenting with driverless technology for use by civilians, the IDF has been using unmanned vehicles for at least five years to protect Israelis.

The army announced this week a program to upgrade its driverless fleet, to include vehicles that can scout areas before soldiers move in and warn of possible dangers before they arrive, and vehicles that will safely and autonomously transport weapons and equipment to soldiers already in the field.

It is unclear when the Google driverless cars will be on the market, with industry pundits believing it will be at least three years, if not longer. The IDF, using Israeli technology, much of it developed in the army itself, has deployed unmanned vehicles for some time now. “Vehicles without drivers are nothing new for the Israeli military,” according to the IDF spokesperson. “They have been used extensively in small devices that enter buildings and large cars equipped with 360-degree cameras.” Among the unmanned vehicles already in use is the Guardium Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV), which patrols the Gaza fence around the clock. According to the spokesperson, “the IDF’s ground forces plan to expand its use of these tools, as experts invent new vehicles based on creative and cutting-edge designs.”

Three new vehicles will enter into army service during the coming two years, among them the Loyal Partner, an armor patrol carrier (APC) Hummer-type vehicle that will carry weapons and devices to soldiers in the field. It is controlled from a nearby base station by joystick and mouse controls, making it capable of traversing rough terrain and able to remain stable while ascending or descending steep hills.

Loyal Partner “will be used as a line of defense for the forces at the front,” said Maj. Lior Trablisi, the head of the IDF’s robot and technology unit. “It will be able to move while identifying bombs and the source of gunfire, able to carry out missions without considerations of risks or manpower. It can remain in the field for long periods of time, carrying out missions precisely and providing a relative advantage to soldiers.”

The Carrier Robot is smaller than the Loyal Partner, but may be just as useful in saving lives, said Trablisi. The robot is lightweight, designed to be carried on the back by soldiers on patrol, and specially designed for exploring the interior of buildings or tunnels constructed by terrorists. The Carrier Robot can be sent into a tunnel to gather intelligence before soldiers enter. It is equipped with cameras, sensors, and a communications system capable of transmitting signals from underground. It is one of the few systems in the world that can do this, said Trablisi.

“The idea is to enter operations with lightweight, portable robots that can function for a number of hours,” said Trablisi. “The device will do things that no human can, such as mapping entire buildings and terror tunnels. The groundbreaking technology will allow soldiers to understand the exact appearance of any structure, helping them avoid the dangers of underground or urban combat.” The system is set to be active by the end of 2015, the army said.

A third system, the Border Protector, was developed specifically to patrol the Gaza border. The vehicle will be able to operate in any kind of weather, operating autonomously along the border fence and transmitting images and data back to headquarters. If anything seems amiss, a battalion of soldiers can be sent in to deal with the problem. Otherwise, soldiers could remain on alert, away from the danger zone.

The new vehicle is planned to replace the Guardium UGV, currently used along the Gaza border. The new system, said Trablisi, can operate for longer periods and contain more and better sensor and communication equipment. “It will be possible to guide the vehicle to all sorts of places without operation rooms nearby,” with operators directing the vehicle from kilometers away. Base stations for the UGV need to be within several hundred meters of the vehicle. The upgrade should enable more units to deploy vehicles more frequently, providing higher levels of security, said Trablisi.

Although IDF brass has been complaining about government budget cuts, which include cancelling exercises for soldiers and pilots for the time being, funds will continue to be pumped into programs for the development of robots, unmanned vehicles and other high-tech soldier substitutes. In the long run, said Trablisi, these technologies will save the army money, because it will be able to cut down on manned patrols.

Far more important, though, are the lives that will be saved by these technologies. Better to risk a robot than to risk a human life, said Trablisi. “A robot doesn’t deal with the same difficulties of lighting, gunfire or breathing [underground],” he said. Robots and unmanned vehicles, he noted, will become “indispensable tools for the surveillance of enemy activities, without putting Israeli forces in danger.”

Click below for a video of the Guardium UGV in action: