The SkyStar 180 balloon, developed by RT Technologies, is competing to be one of the approved technologies for purchase in the annual AEWE (Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment) conducted by the US Army. If chosen, the US armed forces could soon deploy the Israeli-developed surveillance balloon that can be controlled remotely to take highly accurate pictures and video from up to 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the ground.
In order to keep its edge, the United States seeks out the best technologies available for its military. The AEWE is a linchpin of that effort, said Rami Shmuely, CEO of RT, one of three Israeli companies whose technologies are being considered under the program. “The AEWE is an important way the US Army and other American forces decide what new technologies to buy,” said Shmuely. “To be on the AEWE ‘short list,’ as we are, is a great honor.”
As part of the program, the US Army encourages companies from around the world to submit technologies, in the form of production-ready devices and products, for approval. Now in its ninth year, the AEWE program has evolved into one of the important ways the Army decides how to spend its money. A technology must earn an “AEWE-Approved” sticker in order for the Army or any other US military force to buy it.
As a gateway to a possibly lucrative US government contract, AEWE is popular with contractors from a variety of fields, from communications to defense to apparel, with companies presenting uniforms and helmets that help soldiers be more efficient. This year, the army said, over 400 technologies were submitted, with a single company often submitting more than one. Fellow Israeli company Elbit submitted three products this year. Of those 400, 66 were invited to make pitches to army officials in one of four start-up pitch-style sessions, where companies present short overviews of their technology and answer questions from army officials.
A final decision on AEWE approval, at the conclusion of the fourth round of presentations is expected for December, said Shmuely. The second round just ended last month.
RT’s presence in the AEWE is an exceptional accomplishment, even more so because nearly all the other companies under consideration are far larger than Shmuely’s, he said. “We are competing against companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing,” Shmuely said. “Our entire office could probably fit in their reception room.” Also exceptional is the fact that RT is an Israeli firm, one of only three, besides Elta and Elbit, in AEWE. All the other participating firms American. In fact, said Shmuely, this is only the second time non-US firms have been chosen to present in AEWE.
Shmuely thinks his Yavne-based company’s technology has a good chance of receiving final approval. “We have the only long-distance aerial surveillance system that can operate from as high as 600 meters. Our SkyStar 180 system uses a very sturdy and strong helium balloon, and is ideal for observing and protecting fixed sites, such as military bases, temporary camps, strategic facilities and border crossing checkpoints,” said Shmuely. RT’s balloons are better suited to this purpose than drones, which cannot remain suspended in the air, as balloons can. The SkyStar 180 can operate up to three days straight with only a 20-minute re-inflation break at the end; it performs in all weather conditions; has high mobility and a very small logistical footprint; and is simple to operate and highly cost-effective, Shmuely added. RT balloon systems are currently deployed in Israel, Afghanistan, Mexico, Thailand, Canada, Africa and Russia.
Besides its base in Yavne in the south of Israel, RT has an office in Texas and has been working for the past six months out of an incubator in Beersheba operated jointly by Ben-Gurion University and Texas A&M University. RT is five years old and has “been looking for ways to sell in the US for some time now,” said Shmuely.
In his travels in the US, he met an American army officer. The two got to discussing ways to approach army purchasing agents. “The officer gave me a few ideas, but entering the AEWE competition seemed like the best prospect.” While not exactly a secret, the army does not widely publicize AEWE. Shmuely considers himself fortunate to have heard about it and to be among the top technologies considered for purchase approval. “Even if they don’t end up buying our system in the end, we get to display a logo that says AEWE-approved, which is very prestigious,” said Shmuely. “Either way, we come out ahead.”