As Israel begins launching a mass network of delivery drones, officials say they are banking on the vast military experience of many of those involved to safeguard the unmanned vehicles, people on the ground, and the goods they are ferrying around.
From an impressive command center in Tel Aviv, officials described Monday how the new fleet is incorporating the latest in radar, artificial intelligence and drone technology to ensure the success of the project, which is trying to pioneer a system that will see tens of thousands of unmanned vehicles crisscrossing the skies, carrying everything from fast food and beer to urgently needed medical supplies.
“Our systems import a lot of data, including from our Rafael-produced radar,” Eyal Zor, CEO of Airwayz Drones, told The Times of Israel at the Ayalon Highways’ command center in Tel Aviv, referring to one of Israel’s leading military manufacturers.
“Using all of this information together, we can detect what is a ‘good’ drone and what shouldn’t be in the airspace,” he said.
Airwayz says it has produced an artificial intelligence-based system for the smart management of airspaces and drone fleets. The AI “learns” the airspace and manages the different flight control systems, synchronizing them in the skies above urban areas.
Airwayz is one of several companies involved in the government-led initiative to create a national drone network and pilot drone flights for deliveries across Israel.
The program was established last year as a collaboration between the Israeli Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) at the Israel Innovation Authority, the Israel Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA) and the Smart Transportation Authority, the Transportation Ministry through the Ayalon Highways company, and private Israeli and foreign companies, to promote the use of drone delivery as a service.
Zor explained that Airwayz has advanced cybersecurity protection both on its central system and on the individual drones themselves to prevent them from being hacked or hijacked, and methods were in place to verify that information received from the drones was valid and not introduced from the outside.
And if the system detects a drone is out of its control, the AI knows how to safely guide the rest of the fleet around it and keep the network operational.
With plans to have thousands of drones in the sky simultaneously, the system would be working hard to ensure the safety of both the drones and those underneath them.
While the main concern for the project leaders was keeping people on the ground safe from large drones carrying heavy payloads, Zor explained that the drones are also instructed in advance to avoid sensitive sites, such as military bases.
The system can also be used to instruct the drone fleet on the fly.
“For instance, if there is suddenly a police presence in an area, we won’t fly over it, and using the artificial intelligence, the system knows to instruct other drones to move accordingly so as to not cause a crash,” Zor said.
The mass drone delivery project will still have to overcome many challenges as it enters its second year in development. But like much of Israeli technology, methods of dealing with such challenges, as well as the innovation itself, come from those with years of experience in the security establishment.
“Our ecosystem comes from people with a background in aviation, and also the military and defense industries,” Sagi Dagan, VP of Growth at the Israel Innovation Authority, told reporters.
Daniella Partem, head of C4IR at the Innovation Authority, also noted that one of the reasons Israel can lead in these areas is the military backgrounds of many of the people involved in the initiative.
While at this stage the network is testing simple deliveries, it hopes to eventually collaborate with the Israel Police, Fire and Rescue Services, and IDF Home Front Command to have one large interconnected network of drones.
The National Drone Initiative has continued to invite as many private companies and government authorities as possible in order to expand the network, which it said would help increase competition and keep it sustainable.
Last week, the project entered the third of eight planned phases in the pilot program, launching a 10-day demonstration to test drone flights above an urban area in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Ramat Hasharon, Herzliya, and Hadera, where the second phase of the project launched in late June.
In the new stage, the drones will carry out some 300 flights daily above open areas for different tasks such as testing the autonomous systems, analysis of in-air behavior, and the deliveries.
At the moment, the drones can perform 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) radius missions and can carry a load of approximately 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds). In the future, the drones will be able to carry heavier goods and travel longer distances. The Israel Innovation Authority said that next year, the drones will be capable of 100-kilometer radius missions.
And even with the eventual thousands of drones on the network, officials said its cyber-defenses and AI can continue to upscale and would not be deterred by any potential threats.
Ricky Ben-David contributed to this report.