Israeli smart balloon floats to victory in US Army competition

Israeli smart balloon floats to victory in US Army competition

RT’s surveillance balloon will provide protection in the US, like it does in Jerusalem

The SkyStar 180 balloon by RT Technologies (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The SkyStar 180 balloon by RT Technologies (Photo credit: Courtesy)

An Israeli-developed surveillance balloon that is helping to make Jerusalem’s streets safer will soon be adopted by the US Army, Israel’s RT LTA Systems Ltd said Wednesday.

The Skystar Balloon Surveillance System passed the US Army’s tech “boot camp” program, the AEWE (Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment), and is now on the “approved list” for US Armed Forces purchases.

The SkyStar 180, the model approved by the Army, is the same model that is flying as high as 1,000 feet over the skies of Jerusalem, equipped with high-resolution cameras. At least five SkyStars have been deployed by Jerusalem police over neighborhoods in the “seam zone,” between East and West Jerusalem, said RT Rami Shmuely, with the city adding two after initially deploying three last fall.

“The city ordered three of our camera-equipped balloons, and I told the mayor that he should order two more even without the cameras, just for the deterrence factor,” Shmuely said in an interview. “He laughed, but a few days later he called me up to tell me that the system was indeed very effective.”

That’s how the US Army feels, too, said Shmuely. “We have the only long-distance aerial surveillance system that can operate from as high as 600 meters,” he said. “Our SkyStar 180 system uses a very sturdy and strong helium balloon, and is ideal for observing and protecting fixed sites, such as strategic facilities and checkpoints, or whole neighborhoods. The selection and approval of the SkyStar 180 by the US Army is evidence of the system’s quality and its high-level technological capabilities.”

The SkyStars (RT has five versions of the system for different needs) can operate up to 3 days straight with only a 20-minute re-inflation break after 72 hours; can perform in all weather conditions; have high mobility and a very small logistical footprint; and are simple to operate and highly cost effective. RT balloon systems are currently deployed in Afghanistan, Mexico, Thailand, Canada, Africa and Russia.

Now nine years old, the AEWE program has evolved into one of the important ways the US 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 part of the program, the US Army encourages companies from around the world to submit technologies for approval, and as a gateway to a possibly lucrative US government contract, AEWE is popular with contractors from a wide variety of fields, from communications to defense to apparel, with companies presenting uniforms and helmets that aim to increase efficiency.

Over 400 technologies were submitted in the latest AEWE round, and only 66, including RT’s, were invited to make pitches to army officials in one of four sessions, where companies presented short overviews of their technology and answered questions from army officials. Nearly all the other products and technologies RT was competing against were made by large defense contractors, like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Shmuely said. “Our entire office could probably fit in their reception room.”

Based in Yavne in southern Israel, RT has an office in Texas as well, and has been working for the past ten months out of an incubator in Beersheba operated jointly by Ben Gurion University and Texas A&M University.

RT is five years old, and “we have been looking for ways to sell in the US for some time now,” said Shmuely.

On his travels in the US, he met an American army officer, and the two got to discussing about 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, and Shmuely considers himself fortunate to have heard about it, adding, “It is a great honor for us to be chosen to be part of the AEWE.”

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