For soldiers operating at night in an urban environment full of right angles and unseen alleys, there are few tools as useful as the hand-launched Skylark unmanned aircraft, which has played a central role in the five-day-old search for the three missing Israeli teens.
“The advantage of the Skylark is that it is small, it can fly very close to the ground, and because of that I can see very, very well on the roofs and the open areas,” said the unit’s deputy commander Maj. Aviv Koltunoff.
Other unmanned aircraft, he said, fly at high altitude and miss the details necessary in an urban battlefield. “I can see if there is a weapon or not, what the color of the t-shirt is; if there is someone in the window or not.”
The Skylark, made fully operational four years ago, weighs 6.5 kilograms and has a three-meter wingspan. It flies at around 300 meters above the ground and is largely imperceptible in the sky. It can relay information from as far as 15 kilometers away, delivering a picture in color or in black-and-white thermals, and is virtually soundless.
Koltunoff said his four-man teams are accompanying every fighting unit in the West Bank from Jenin to Hebron. Two of the men launch the aircraft in the field with the help of a bungee cord and a small motor, and two, alongside the force commander, maneuver the craft and interpret the images.
The Skylark is particularly useful in scanning rooftops, he said. Every fighting unit, from the small Special Forces teams making night time arrests to the battalion sized troops moving through the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, has planned its route based on the Skylark images and often altered it in accordance with real-time intelligence.
Though no armed people have as of yet been spotted on the rooftops – “the enemy knows we are in the sky and he is not stupid” – every force entering the West Bank cities over the past five days has asked for the unit’s UAV support. “I can say that every ground force has a UAV skylark team and that there are not enough,” Koltunoff said. “Everyone wants this UAV team…They see the importance, the influence, and the relevance and they all want to use it.”
Additionally, the Israel Air Force on Tuesday posted on its website a 2010 article about the ways UAV squadrons have cooperated in recent years with the IDF’s hostage and MIA unit, helping to locate the remains of six soldiers killed in May 2004 when an explosive laden APC blew up in Gaza and pinpointing the location of the remains of Master Sargeant Keren Tendler, Israel’s first female helicopter flight mechanic, who was shot down during the Second Lebanon War in August 2006. In those two incidents body warmth played a role in the discovery but a reserves drone operator identified only as Yoav explained that even graves, on account of the unique shape left in the earth, leave telltale signs that the operators are trained to find. “Something different than its surroundings is created,” he said.
The article was posted from the IAF archive and made no mention of the three missing teens.