By the end of 2017, every company commander in the IDF’s Infantry, Border Defense and Combat Intelligence Corps will have access to a camera-equipped drone, putting at their disposal information that was once only available to special forces and higher ranking officers.
“It’s a capability that they can really use,” Cpt. Nadav Peretz, Head of the Drones Department in the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps, told The Times of Israel last week.
“This is something that a few years ago no one thought would have existed,” he added.
Four out of five battalions of the Combat Intelligence Corps have already received a more powerful, heavier version, known as the “Matrice.” And by August, a simple, collapsible drone, known as a “Mavic,” will be delivered.
The Mavic will be used by the remaining combat intelligence battalion, the army’s five infantry brigades — Givati, Nahal, Paratroopers, Kfir and Golani — as well as the newly formed Border Defense Corps, which includes the mixed-gender combat battalions — Caracal, Lions of the Jordan, Bardelas and Lavi of the Valley.
The drones are not military-grade. In fact, for about 1,000 bucks you too can be the proud owner of the same kind of drone as an IDF combat company.
The IDF is purchasing the drones from DJI, a Chinese company. The Mavics are set to be delivered to the army by August and will be in the officers’ hands three to four months later, after a training period, Peretz said.
The drones have limited battery power, cannot fly in turbulent weather and do not have night vision capabilities so they will only be used in day-time missions, Peretz said.
The connection between the drone and the controller is not completely encrypted so they can only be used in non-classified missions, he added.
But while they are not on the cutting edge of tech, these off-the-shelf drones will give relatively low-level commanders access to previously unimaginable amounts of information, Peretz said.
“[Company commanders] don’t see the drones as a toy, they see it as something serious,” Peretz said of the officers who were part of a pilot program for the system.
Take, for example, a common occurrence in the West Bank: violent protests.
These are often just a few dozen Palestinian teenagers burning tires and throwing rocks at troops, but can also escalate into something larger.
Currently, a company commander has only his binoculars and field reports in order to calculate how demonstrators were spread out, how many were there and if more were coming.
Of course, the military already has a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, both large and small. The Combat Intelligence Corps also deploys large balloons that are equipped with cameras and other sensors.
But these types of assets are not typically available to commanders in the field, due to the comparatively small number of them and the bureaucratic steps required in order to access to them. In many cases, this means that only special forces use drones or that infantry and border defense units have to wait hours, Peretz said.
But by year’s end, any company commander will “no longer be dependent upon the logistics” and will be able to see entire field of action “within a couple minutes,” the captain said.
The combat intelligence officer compared the jump from binoculars to drone to that of moving from a simple telephone to a smartphone.
The company commander will not operate the drone himself, but will have a team of three soldiers beneath him who are trained to operate the platform.
One soldier will use a controller and tablet to actually fly the drone, while a second will act as a spotter to ensure it is not entering into an area where it could get stuck or shot down. The third soldier acts as a back-up, Peretz said.
The Mavic model will be used by the infantry and border defense units, as well as the Combat Intelligence Corps’ 414th Battalion. It use weighs approximately 700 grams (1.6 pounds) and folds up to fit into a pouch, which can be strapped to a soldier’s leg. It has a battery that allows for 20 minutes of flight time, but each drone will come with multiple batteries, allowing for hours of time in the air.
The Matrice, which the rest of the combat intelligence battalions will operate, is larger, weighing in at about 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), but can still be easily carried by one soldier. Its heavier weight allows it to fly in worse weather, and a larger battery lets it stay in the air for twice as long as the Mavic. It too comes with extra batteries to grant it hours of total flight time, Peretz said.
Drones have been commercially available for years — “You can buy one at a gas station,” Peretz noted — but the cameras on early, affordable models were not at the level that the army demanded.
Now, the price and quality are “in balance,” which prompted the decision to purchase the off-the-shelf drones for company commanders, Peretz said.
The IDF, however, will be paying a higher price than your average consumer, in the “tens of thousands of shekels,” Peretz said, as it is buying not only the drone itself, but also tablets to control them, replacement parts, maintenance and other services from DJI, he said.
Lest he divulge how many companies are in the IDF, Peretz would not say how many drones the IDF would be purchasing, but said it was in the hundreds, putting the total cost for this drone project into the millions of shekels.
However, this is only an interim measure. The army is in the process of working with various defense contractors to construct a drone known as the “Tzur,” specifically for the IDF’s needs, Peretz said, but this effort is still in the preliminary stages, with no final deadline in place.