IDF aims for more accuracy in its warnings of incoming missiles

Army’s iOref touted as 4 seconds faster than other alert apps, and more narrowly targeted

School children hurry to shelters as sirens sound throughout Israel as part of a of an IDF Home Front Command drill on June 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
School children hurry to shelters as sirens sound throughout Israel as part of a of an IDF Home Front Command drill on June 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The army’s early warning app, iOref, is faster and smarter than the competition’s, according to the director of the IDF Homefront Command’s alerts division.

“There are other apps that claim to warn Israelis if a missile is coming in, or if there is information they need in the event of a civil emergency, but none are as fast and accurate as iOref [oref refers to the homefront], which we developed with a private sector partner,” said Shlomo Maman. “Our notifications come in about four seconds faster than the other leading app, and because of the combined cell and GPS location tech we use, we are able to much more accurately pinpoint where an impact is about to take place.”

This is no meaningless boast.

“When you have fifteen seconds to get to a shelter in advance of an incoming rocket, as the residents of the Gaza border area have, then every second counts,” said Maman. “Our objective is to provide the maximum amount of time available to Israelis so they can prepare properly for an emergency situations.

“And just as important, we aim to offer even more precise geo-targeting of attacks, so that warnings are sent only to those truly in danger. This way we will avoid sending half the country to bomb shelters, interrupting commerce, education, and the daily lives of Israelis,” added Maman.

The army’s alerts division is known for interrupting radio and TV broadcasts to announce the targets of missiles fired by Gazan or other terror groups. But the Home Front Command has other methods at its disposal to get the word out.

“We use numerous channels to warn about dangers, including mass media, sirens, flyers, even home warning devices. And of course iOref,” said Maman.

Each of those warning systems requires specific technologies in order to work properly. Take sirens, for example.

“Most sirens are manually operated, but by the time word gets out and the siren is sounded, you lose precious seconds,” said Maman. “In front-line communities in the Gaza area, residents have only 15 seconds to get to a shelter, so a delay of even just a few seconds could mean lives lost. We recently began a project of digitizing the sirens in that area, connecting them to a dedicated communications line.”

The IDF has also invested millions of shekels in battery-operated mobile sirens for use in battle staging areas. “Many of the 67 soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge in 2014 died as the result of missile attacks in staging areas on the Gaza border, as they prepared for battle in Gaza. There, soldiers had even less than 15 seconds to take shelter, and it was impossible to effectively warn them in time of an incoming danger. With the mobile sirens, we will be able to keep sirens together with units and sound them immediately, giving soldiers a few more seconds to protect themselves.”

Shlomo Maman (Courtesy)
Shlomo Maman (Courtesy)

His group also has the ability to break into broadcasts and signals by TV stations – terrestrial, cable, and satellite – radio stations, cellphone networks, and websites.

“We work with all the major outlets in Israel, broadcasting messages over a cell network (via a platform that uses radio, cellphone networks, SMS/MMS, IVR, push notifications, and modern and legacy communications protocols). As soon as an emergency situation arises, the systems go into action, automatically broadcasting crawl screens or information boxes on TV screens and websites, or targeting cellphones in specific geographical areas.

On cellular networks, “we blanket a targeted area using messaging technology.”

The same holds true for iOref users. The app can target users in specific geographical locations, warning them that they need to take shelter, while users in other areas are not notified, said Maman.

Ironically, though, the biggest challenge is not getting the word out to as many people as possible but to as few as possible, and that is where funding and technology efforts are going nowadays, said Maman.

“Imagine a Hamas terrorist firing a rocket at a city like Ashkelon or Ashdod, and sirens and alerts going off throughout the city, sending 100,000 people to scramble for shelter in less than half a minute,” said Maman. “It shuts down the economy for minutes, even hours at a time, and the losses in production time and morale are very high.”

Maman’s group is developing highly accurate geo-targeting and location-based technology to narrow down as much as possible the target of an incoming missile. “We can tell pretty precisely where the rocket is going to fall and which neighborhoods or even streets need to take shelter – but until now we haven’t had systems that could issue warnings on a limited basis, down to the neighborhood or even the street where an attack is imminent. We’re working on a system to do just that, with our objective to ‘bother’ as few people as possible.”

iOref in action (Courtesy)
iOref in action (Courtesy)

The move toward precise geo-targeting has been evolving since the 1991 Gulf War.

“During the Gulf War, we had no technology to determine exactly where a missile would hit, so when the sirens went off, the entire country took cover,” said Maman. “Things have changed radically since then, to the point where we now have 256 specific warning areas – meaning that we narrow down the danger of an incoming missile or mass civilian emergency like a gas leak or earthquake – all things we keep track of – and send out warnings only to those most likely to be affected.

“We use big data and advanced algorithms to figure this out, and so far our tests have borne out the approach,” said Maman.

Eventually, he said, the IDF could develop a device that would be included in cable boxes or digital TV receivers that would be hooked into an early warning network with thousands, instead of hundreds, separate early-warning areas.

“Then we would be able to target the homes of people who may not hear the sirens or don’t have their phones on – or who have lost power due to the emergency situation. Our warning system is highly accurate, much more than anything the civilian sector could produce, and this shows up most clearly when you compare the data in iOref to other early warning apps, and we are going to make it even more precise.”

Maman added, “I know that some people in the center of the country tended to dismiss the warnings we sent out during Operation Protective Edge, because they felt that their neighborhood was too far out of range of Hamas missiles. That is a very dangerous attitude, though – and all it takes is one on-target missile to convince people otherwise. The more accurate our system, the more likely people will be to take warnings seriously.”

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