After riots in two Arab neighborhoods spilled onto the tracks of the city’s light rail system, Jerusalem’s mayor thought long and hard about how to prevent future incidents of danger to life and property. Then the answer came to him — from the sky.

“We in the city had made use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for various purposes recently, and we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to make use of the technology,” Mayor Nir Barkat told The Times of Israel. “With UAVs, you get great high-resolution images taken from a birds-eye perspective, giving you the flexibility to zero in on any potential trouble spots in a way that ground level cameras cannot accomplish.”

The riots this month in Beit Hanina and Shuafat in northern Jerusalem disrupted service on the light rail, which carries thousands of residents every day through the length of Jerusalem, including Arab neighborhoods in the part of the city claimed by the Palestinians but annexed by Israel in 1967.

Just days after the disturbances, the city signed a contract with Ron Krauss’s Bladeworx, an aeronautics company that specializes in UAV aerial photography — the first company of its kind in Israel. Krauss said the city was the one that came up with the idea to use his UAVs to patrol the light rail line. “Our UAVs are equipped with several kinds of cameras, for both still and streaming video, and we can transmit the compressed HD video and images to mobile stations within about a kilometer from the UAV itself,” he said.

“We had done various aerial photography projects with the municipality, but this is the first time we are doing crime patrols, working with law enforcement to ensure public safety,” said Krauss, adding that “this is the first time anywhere a UAV system is being employed to patrol a train line.”

Why no other jurisdiction has thought to use UAVs for patrol and surveillance before isn’t clear, but in Jerusalem’s case, it’s an elegant solution.

The riots broke out in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem after the burned body of Shuafat teen Muhammed Abu Khdair was discovered. During the riots, vandals destroyed the stations and tracks of the light rail line.

The damage was so extensive that many observers thought it would be months, if not longer, before service was restored. Barkat, who was determined not to let the rioters interfere with the course of daily life in Jerusalem, managed to get the job done in weeks. The light rail is running again, with one difference — the crowds waiting at the stations are being watch by a Bladeworx UAV, and the video and still photo feed are being downloaded from cameras in the UAVs to a police and municipality data center, where officials can keep an eye on action in real time, aiming to handle small problems before they turn into big ones.

The lightweight (a kilo and a half each) devices, flying about 100 meters in the air, are controlled from the ground by an expert pilot, who goes through rigorous training and is required to have not only a license to fly planes, but to pass a three month course dedicated specifically to flying and controlling UAVs, said Krauss.

The best part, said Barkat, is that the program does not require a major capital outlay. The UAVs are owned by Bladeworx, “so we only pay for what we use, without having to invest in an infrastructure, licenses, permits, and the other bureaucratic matters.” Those issues, said Krauss, are his headache. “We are the only company in Israel licensed to do aerial UAV photography, and before we started doing safety surveillance we had to get another set of permits from the Israel Aviation Authority, the police, the Homefront Security Ministry, and the municipality in order to send up our devices.”

Since they are taking video and images, police can zoom in on any individual scenario, analyzing it and presumably using face-recognition technology to narrow down culprits who threaten life and property. So far, the system, which has been in use for about a week, has not uncovered anything untoward.

Far from keeping it a secret, Barkat said that he wants to make sure everyone in town knows about the program. “Our purpose is to alert authorities in case of problems and enable them to catch the culprits, but we would rather prevent such incidents from happening in the first place, and we believe that as people become aware of the presence of the UAVs, they will realize that crime doesn’t pay, because they are going to get caught — and you don’t want to get caught by one of these machines.”

For now, said Barkat, the UAVs will concentrate on the section of the light rail that was affected by the riots — three stations that run along Uzi Dayan Boulevard — but the program is likely to be expanded to other parts of the light rail, and other parts of town, in the near future. “So far the feedback has been very good,” said Barkat. “People are much more confident and feel much safer knowing that this system is watching out for their safety. You get a much better and more thorough range of surveillance with UAVs than you ever could with ground cameras or even police helicopters, so the safety of passengers is enhanced significantly.”

With that, said Krauss, it’s unlikely that Israel’s skies will be filled with pilotless UAVs anytime soon. “It’s a lot of effort to deploy a program like this, and you need to comply with a lot of regulations to get into the business at all,” he said. “We have worked with other cities as well as with Jerusalem on various aerial photography projects, but this is the first ongoing civil-sector safety surveillance project we, or anyone else, have been engaged in. I imagine we will be hearing from other cities in Israel and elsewhere who want to duplicate what we have done here.”

A Bladeworx UAV above the skies of Jerusalem (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A Bladeworx UAV above the skies of Jerusalem (Photo credit: Courtesy)