Going to war? Don’t forget your virtual reality goggles.
The Israeli army is gearing up for the future by adapting revolutionary technologies from the civilian world — from artificial intelligence to telecommunications to virtual reality.
Technology will continue to play a huge part in the battlefield of the future, said the head of the IDF’s Lotem C4i technological division, a brigadier general who can be identified only by the Hebrew initial Resh, as the division unveiled its latest innovations in a briefing with reporters last week at an army base south of Tel Aviv.
The high speed of technological changes globally requires that the IDF speed up its response time and consistently upgrade the technology it offers its soldiers, said Resh.
“We need to provide immediate solutions,” he said. But these don’t necessarily all need to come from in-house developments: The plethora of technologies being spewed out by the civilian world offers the IDF the opportunity to dip into “all of the goodies” that are out there and adapt them to the needs of the army, he said.
Soldiers and commanders on the field can make better decisions if they know where they are, where their comrades are and where the enemy is at all times, Resh said. The need to distribute information about developments in real time is behind the technological push of the IDF, he explained.
Lotem works closely with the various units to develop joint products that will better meet the needs on the ground, he said.
Earlier this year, the IDF launched its own smartphone, developed in collaboration with Motorola.
The new phone, already in use by soldiers in the field, not only revolutionizes communications but also allows a flattening of hierarchical structure of the chain of command, said Col. Avi Duek, the head of the systems and projects department. Whereas once soldiers reported to a commander, and that commander to his commander, messages are now received directly by everyone in the command chain at the same time.
The phone does not allow communication by users outside the army network and has protections in place in case it falls in enemy hands, Duek said, without providing further details. The phone uses 4G and broadband technology, a mixture of civilian and army networks, and includes applications like an army-specific WhatsApp.
“The potential of this device is huge,” Duek said. “It creates a transparent and joint discourse and also helps develop better operational awareness,” enabling soldiers to receive drone-taken images directly on their smartphones, for example, or take pictures or fingerprints of injured soldiers.
The challenges for using these technologies in the army are greater than in the civilian world, he said. Cellular coverage must be ubiquitous. “I need it to work anywhere and everywhere, above and below ground,” in a wadi — the Arabic word for a dry riverbed — or beyond Israel’s borders, he said.
In addition, all information needs to be delivered in real time, because “in the army a second of delay could mean life or death.”
“We want to use the technologies that are out there in the civilian market and leverage them and adapt them to the needs of the army,” said Duek.
This includes putting smart sensors to work and making sense of the data using artificial intelligence. All new technologies adapted and deployed by the army must have cybersecurity measures built into the systems to protect them from enemy interference, he said.
The IDF has already deployed sensors around borders and has developed a ZTube channel — a sort of a YouTube channel — with live feeds from them; the images can be viewed later on demand, as well. The unit is also working on algorithms that will allow the automatic recognition of objects, Duek said.
The use of artificial intelligence is already widespread in the IDF, said Lt. Col. Nurit Cohen-Inger, head of Sigma Branch, and for the past three years the army has been moving toward using more predictive systems and incorporating deep learning into its capabilities.
AI will be even more present in coming years as it changes the character of the battlefield, she said. “Data is the new oil. It is an asset we must collect and use to tell us a story.”
The IDF is adopting AI in attack and defense plans, in logistics and for human resources purposes, she said, “in a very big way.”
At border crossings, the IDF has already installed facial recognition technologies to make it easier for Palestinians to come and work in Israel, she said. “The system identifies them and the process is becoming completely automatic.”
The system is already operative at the Eyal checkpoint near Qalqilya in the West Bank, said Cohen-Inger, and will be implemented at all of the crossings within the coming year.
In addition, the IDF has recently begun the automatic transcription of videos into text, which can be used to make sense of surveillance footage.
The technology, which is based on artificial intelligence, is able to read and understand video images and translate what it sees into text. It can cross-reference the images it sees with other relevant information and can send an emergency alert if it spots anything that requires special attention. And the IDF is working on text analytics, in which the computers grind through vast amounts of texts and rank events in terms of time and importance.
The IDF is also forging ahead with “predictive maintenance,” in which sensors are installed on tanks, trucks and other gear to help preserve them at optimal levels. Using advanced analytics and sensors, the system will send out an alert when vehicles and other hardware need servicing.
At the same briefing, Maj. Tzvika Zecharia, head of the Chief Programmer’s Desk, demonstrated how virtual reality and artificial reality goggles will become part of the army’s toolkit.
They will allow commanders to play war games, virtually moving tanks and troops in a battlefield. They’ll also be used to to train its soldiers remotely, for example allowing mechanics to practice repairing a virtual tank, and paramedics to perform operations on the battlefield, assisted by remote input from medics at a central command.
In addition, said Cohen-Inger, the IDF is already using AI for human resources, to better match new recruits to jobs, she said.
“The whole idea is to adopt AI in small steps,” she said, by introducing changes gradually and making sure to “keep the man in the loop” in order to avoid mistakes, she said. But, she added, there is no doubt that “AI has a high potential to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the IDF.”